S14_FOB_spacestationAfter winning a national startup competition, Quad Technologies will become the first Northeastern-based venture to take product testing into outer space.

Founded in 2012, Quad Technologies is the brainchild of associate professor of chemical engineering Shashi Murthy and engineering graduate student Adam Hatch, and alumni Sean Kevlahan, PhD’13, and Brian Plouffe, MS’07, PhD’11. Their product is a dissolvable magnetic gel that could revolutionize certain sectors of medicine and medical research by enabling the efficient separation of stem cells from surrounding substances, such as blood or tissue.

One major advantage of Quad’s innovation is that it would give scientists the first practical method for harvesting blood-borne hematopoietic stem cells, which could be used to replace the controversial embryonic stem cells in a range of research applications.

But to function, the gel must be formed into “microbeads”—microscopic polymer particles that bind to the target cells—and that’s where the space expedition
enters the picture.

The team has not been able to produce microbeads that are uniform in size—and gravity appears to be a chief culprit.

To test that hypothesis, Quad Technologies will build a microbead production platform to NASA specifications and launch it into space via commercial rocket, where astronauts with the International Space Station’s National Laboratory will put it to use in the weightless environment.

“They’re going to make beads in space; we’re going to make identical beads on earth,” said Plouffe. “We’ll do a side-by-side comparison to basically decouple the gravity effects, and in doing so, we’ll be able to optimize our process and formulate design equations for the beads.”

The opportunity to study microbead formation in zero-gravity conditions came about this past fall, when Quad Technologies won a $45,000 award from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. Quad was one of eight new ventures chosen by the agency through the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator.

“This trip provides us with a unique opportunity for Quad to tweak its earth-based manufacturing process,” says Murthy.

And as founding director of Northeastern’s Michael J. and Ann Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education, he knows just how vital that is to Quad’s success.