Northeastern startup named finalist in global competition

From News @ Northeastern
October 17, 2013 by 

Quad Technologies
Associate professor Shashi Murthy and Sean Kevlahan, who earned his doctoral degree in chemical engineering in 2012, helped found Quad Technologies in 2012. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

On their first day of grad­uate school at North­eastern, Sean Kevlahan told Adam Hatch of his ambi­tious vision: Hatch would invent some­thing amazing, and Kevlahan would help him sell it. Four years later, their biotech­nology startup Quad Tech­nolo­gies has made it to the final round of the pres­ti­gious 2013 Mass­Chal­lenge, an annual global startup com­pe­ti­tion that this year has more than $1 mil­lion in accel­er­ator grant funding up for grabs.

In 2012, Kevlahan and Hatch co-​​founded Quad, which aims to com­mer­cialize a unique dis­solv­able hydrogel, along with fellow class­mate Brian Plouffe  and asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering Shashi Murthy. In June, the com­pany, which has received sup­port from Northeastern’s student-​​run ven­ture accel­er­ator IDEA and the Health Sci­ences Entre­pre­neurs pro­gram, was named one of 128 Mass­Chal­lenge semi-​​finalists from a pool of more than 1,200 appli­cants. Since then, the North­eastern entre­pre­neurs have been privy to an elite lineup of talks, lec­tures, and net­working events; finan­cial, spa­tial, and men­tor­ship resources; and the gen­eral “water-​​cooler effect” that emerges when you put more than 100 inno­v­a­tive thinkers in one room.

On Tuesday, Mass­Chal­lenge once again whit­tled down the com­pe­ti­tion, this time from 128 star­tups to 26. As part of the elite group, Kevlahan will have the chance to pitch his busi­ness to a panel of judges com­prising startup exec­u­tives from com­pa­nies ranging from Kayak to ZipCar.

The results of the final round of the com­pe­ti­tion will be announced on Oct. 30 at the Boston Con­ven­tion and Exhi­bi­tion Center, where $1 mil­lion in accel­er­ator grants will be dished out. In addi­tion, three Mass­Chal­lenge spon­sors will also award prizes to some entrepreneurs.

“I already feel we’ve won,” said Kevlahan. “We’ve made great con­nec­tions, learned a lot, and received feed­back from high-​​level CEOs.”

The proph­e­sied inven­tion that gave birth to Quad is called QuickGel, which con­sists of an algae-​​derived polymer, poly­eth­ylene glycol, and a change­able “cap­ture pro­tein,” Kevlahan explained. This pro­tein works like a lock and key to selec­tively bind par­tic­ular cell types or bio­log­ical mol­e­cules. The beauty of the system is that a simple trick of chem­istry allows it to readily dis­solve once its job is done.

These cre­ative entre­pre­neurial minds envi­sion many appli­ca­tions for this mate­rial, but one is already promising to trans­form one field in par­tic­ular: stem cell research.

Plouffewhose exper­tise lies in mag­netic cell sep­a­ra­tion and iso­la­tion, imme­di­ately rec­og­nized a use for the mate­rial in the con­tentious field. Stem cells hold great promise for treat­ment advances in dis­eases ranging from ALS to Parkinson’s Dis­ease to Hodgkin’s Lym­phoma, but there’s cur­rently no effec­tive method to purify the cells, which can derive any other cell type in the body.

It turns out there are hun­dreds of stem cells cir­cu­lating through our blood streams at any given moment. If we could har­vest those cells, said Kevlahan, then the need for con­tro­ver­sial embry­onic stem cells would become obsolete.

Stan­dard tech­nolo­gies use mag­netic par­ti­cles to sep­a­rate the stem cells from their sur­round­ings. The only problem with this method is the par­ti­cles never loosen their grip. Coating them with QuickGel pro­vides a straight­for­ward workaround, according to Kevlahan, and opens a flood­gate of inno­va­tion for stem cell researchers. “I like to say that stem cells are the next gold rush, and we’re sup­plying the pickaxe,” he said.

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