Among the many types of cancer, prostate cancer is particularly fraught with uncertainty for patients and doctors: It's one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in men, but treatment decisions are tricky because it's very hard to know how aggressive a particular tumor is. A team competing in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is hoping to market a lab technique for analyzing biopsy tissue that will offer prognostic information that will be crucial when deciding between radical prostatectomy surgery or a more cautious approach.
Cellanyx Diagnostics is one of 30 semifinalists in the ACCELERATE portion of the MIT $100K contest. The teams, which were selected from more than 250 entrants, each received $1,000 and mentorship from industry experts as they developed demo videos and other material to aid their entrepreneurial ventures. Eight finalists will be chosen on Feb. 16, with grand prize and audience choice winners selected on Feb. 22.
Cellanyx Diagnostics was founded by MIT alumnus Ashok Chander, who earned an SB in biology from MIT in 2002 before earning his PhD from Columbia. Chander and his colleagues developed their diagnostic solution by drawing on matrix biology, novel biomarkers, microfluidic technology, and computational techniques — but he also saw the need for interdisciplinary perspectives. The team he recruited now includes experts in nanofabrication, microfluidics, physical chemistry, marketing and product development.
Jessica Lin, who is working toward both an MBA and a master's degree in biomechanics through the Leaders for Global Operations program, is vice president for reimbursement and regulatory affairs for Cellanyx Diagnostics.
"I wanted to join a start-up because I wanted to see what it's like to build an organization from the ground up," she says. "I chose Cellanyx over other startups because the team members were really passionate about the product. You have to really believe in a product when you join a start-up because you're certainly not doing it for the pay, and I strongly believe that Cellanyx Diagnostics can allow patients and physicians to make better and more cost-effective decisions during cancer treatment."
Also on the team are Sheetal Bhalsod; Amar Kendale (SB '00 and SM '02 in mechanical engineering); Ruiyi Millie Liu, a Master of Finance student at MIT Sloan; Emily Reichert, an MBA student in the Sloan Fellows Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Pablo A. Reinoso, an MBA student at MIT Sloan; and Jonathan Varsanik (SB '05 in physics, SB '05 in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), MEng '06 and PhD '11 in EECS).
During the competition's ACCELERATE period, team members researched commercialization strategy aspects including licensing, other cancer targets, and clinical and regulatory strategies to thoroughly understand the steps that will be needed to bring their diagnostic to market. The opportunity to create a five-minute video to help people visualize and understand their work was also key.
"The life sciences industry can be incredibly hard to understand because you can't really see how a diagnostic works the way that you can see how an engine works; the parts are just too small," Lin says.
The team earlier made a shorter video for the YOU PITCH portion of the MIT $100K contest in 2011, when Cellanyx was named first runner-up in the life sciences category of the business plan competition.
After studying bioengineering and economics as an undergraduate, Lin worked with life science clients at a consulting firm specializing in R&D portfolio management. She also held research positions in cartilage tissue engineering, drug encapsulation and synthetic biology. In her pre-LGO career, Lin noted that although science and engineering advances can result in great therapeutic products, affordability for patients was often a major obstacle.
"Through efficiency gains in production, many companies have generated higher profits and have also reduced the cost of their therapeutics so more patients can afford them," Lin says. "I chose to apply to LGO because it'll teach me how to make processes more efficient from a supply chain, operations and bioengineering perspective."
Regardless of the outcome of the MIT $100K competition, Lin will stay involved with Cellanyx Diagnostics and focus on the company's regulatory strategy.
"Everyone on the Cellanyx team understands that commercializing our diagnostic is both a scientific pursuit as well as a business proposition, which is why the LGO curriculum in both engineering and business is so helpful," Lin says. "Understanding and executing in both the scientific and business domain is what makes Cellanyx so interesting and challenging — and I hope to see more LGOs on our team in the future."