In remote villages in Africa, clinics are struggling to deliver timely blood tests to help doctors determine the best way to treat HIV patients. But Bill Rodriguez, a Harvard-trained physician, through his new startup Daktari Diagnostics, is working on a handheld device that could someday perform blood tests for HIV patients virtually anywhere within a few minutes.
Cambridge, MA-based Daktari has generated buzz for its technology and social cause from a bevy of Boston-area backers that have invested a total of $2.8 million to complete its Series A round of financing, says Rodriguez, the co-founder and CEO of startup told me in his first in-depth interview about the company. (We wrote a short story last week that the one-year-old startup had raised $2.5 million, based on regulatory filings, but the firm now says it has raised more money than that.) The Boston-area investors in the startup—a few of which we reported last week—include Norwich Ventures, Partners Innovation Fund, Hub Angels, Mass Medical Angels, Launchpad Venture Group, and Boston Harbor Angels.
Daktari (a Swahili word for doctor or caregiver) has a goal with of producing both social and economic benefits. Rodriguez, who was previously chief medical officer of the William J. Clinton Foundation, said that millions of HIV-positive patients in the world aren’t receiving regular tests that measure the number of blood cells with CD4 markers on their surface—a key indicator of a patient’s immune system strength that can inform a doctor’s decisions on how aggressively to treat HIV. Part of the problem is that the blood tests to get CD4 counts typically must be performed by expensive, bulky instruments called flow cytometers. It’s also difficult to obtain and handle the blood samples because many HIV patients live in remote areas.. Daktari may have a solution: a handheld diagnostic device designed to for use in any setting, without having to manually transfer blood with pipettes or other manual steps.
Some serious players in diagnostics and innovation circles are affiliated with Daktari, including Stan Lapidus, a founder of numerous companies such as women’s health diagnostics firm Cytyc (acquired by Hologic for $6.2 billion in 2007), and Ed Roberts, an MIT Sloan School of Management professor who founded and serves as chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. Both Lapidus and Roberts serve on Daktari’s board of directors, and Roberts told Xconomy in an e-mail that he and his family members are investors in the company. Also, company CEO Rodriguez said he gained extensive experience working in developing countries where the firm plans to sell its devices while working at the Clinton Foundation from 2003 to 2007.
“Today we are seeing an increasing number of early-stage new enterprises, especially in the medical area, that have very clear double bottom-lines—they offer significant upside opportunities for investors while promising dramatic social returns to the country and the world,” Roberts, who is also an Xconomy investor, wrote in the e-mail. “My investment in Daktari conveys my belief in its high financial upside potential, but I also see a possible dramatic contribution to controlling the world’s AIDS crisis.”
Roger Kitterman, a partner at Partners Innovation Fund, a founding member of Mass Medical Angels, and board member of Daktari, says the startup can do a lot of good without a lot of money relative to the capital requirements of many life sciences startups. Thus far the startup has operated with a lean staff of three people, while outsourcing some technical duties to the Boston office of product development firm Continuum. “One of the things we liked about this particular investment is that it didn’t require $10 million dollars before you get to your first-in-man clinical testing,” said Kitterman.
Daktari’s device could make CD4 testing as easy as using the glucose meters that measure blood sugar for diabetics. In basic terms, Rodriguez explained to me how the device works. A patient’s finger is pinpricked to release a bit of blood and then is pressed onto part of a special plastic card, which gets is loaded into the device. The blood travels down tiny channels on the card and into a chamber that contains certain antibodies that are made to attach to cells that have the CD4 protein on the surface. After the attached CD4 cells are separated from the rest of the blood cells, the device counts the approximate number CD4 cells in the chamber with electronic sensors within minutes.
Daktari has licensed the electrochemical sensing and microfluidics technology in the device from Massachusetts General Hospital and Purdue University. (Kitterman told me that MGH has agreed to waive any royalties it would receive on sales of Daktari’s products in developing countries.) The startup already has a working prototype that has been tested at MGH, where much of the early engineering and research to develop the handheld device was performed in the lab of company co-founder and biomedical engineer Mehmet Toner. The startup plans to begin clinical trials next year to gather enough evidence that the diagnostic device works to garner regulatory approval, Rodriguez said.
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