Research that happens at the intersection of different fields can lead to new innovations that tackle pressing problems in the life sciences. This year’s finalists in the Innovation at the Intersection category show the value of bringing different disciplines—engineering and biology, IT and medicine—together. Here are brief introductions to the finalists. The winners of this and the other categories of the Xconomy Awards will be announced at the Awards Gala in Boston on September 26.
Akili Interactive Labs — Prescription Video Games
Akili aims to be the first company to receive FDA approval to sell mobile video games as a medical device that can diagnose and treat a variety of cognitive disorders. The company, created by PureTech Health, sits at the intersection of software and medicine. Its employees have backgrounds in video game development (some have worked on titles like “Medal of Honor”), the arts, data science, cognitive psychology, drug development, and more. Akili is testing its product on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and also hopes to target Parkinson’s disease and depression. The company raised a $42 million Series B funding round last year from Merck, Amgen, and others.
Dennis Ausiello – Software Health Check
Precision medicine depends on the ability to precisely measure key health parameters, and software and devices like smartphones can play a big part in collecting that data. That’s why Dennis Ausiello, after more than 16 years as chair of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), founded the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH) in 2013. The center, a collaboration between MGH and MIT, aims to develop easy-to-use technologies that can continuously monitor health, and to use that health data to improve early diagnostics and targeted treatments. His group developed an iPhone app for diabetes patients and he is also working with Google’s Verily on its diabetes projects and device development.
David Berry – From Energy to the Microbiome
David Berry can often be found at the interface of various fields: energy, synthetic biology, agriculture, and more recently, the microbiome. As a general partner with Flagship Pioneering, he has co-founded and helped grow more than 20 companies, including ones that engineered microbes to produce renewable fuel. His latest ventures are companies with different takes on the microbiome. In June, Seres Therapeutics started a phase 3 trial testing its bacterial capsule on patients with recurrent Clostridium difficile infection, which is common in hospitals and is resistant to antibiotics. If all goes well for Seres, it could be the first approved microbiome drug. Berry also co-founded Evelo Biosciences, which is working on specific strains of microbes that modulate the immune system and other biological processes to treat a range of diseases. And agricultural microbiome firm Indigo recently announced that its microbial treatment of wheat seeds boosted wheat yields by 8 to 16 percent in commercial fields in a water-stressed part of Kansas.
Sangeeta Bhatia – Bringing Nanotech to Bear on Cancer
Sangeeta Bhatia, trained as both a physician and engineer, has for years been mining new inventions at the intersection of biology, nanomaterials, microfabrication, and engineering. She’s also co-founded companies to commercialize her work, including Hepregen (which recently merged with another company to become Ascendence Bio). The firm sells devices based on the “liver on a chip” technology developed out of her lab and are used to screen drugs for toxicity. Combining nanotech with medicine, her multidisciplinary lab came up with diagnostic tests for cancer that use nanoparticles and work like pregnancy tests. (These were developed in Bhatia’s lab by another Awards finalist, Andrew Warren, who now works for another Bhatia spinout, Glympse Bio). More recently, Bhatia has moved into infectious disease and microbiology, using artificial livers she’s developed to study how malaria parasites infect the liver.
Emulate – Organ on a Chip on its Way to Space
By combining microengineering with cell biology, Emulate has designed small battery-sized chips to mimic how human organs function. Tens of thousands of human cells—from the brain, liver or lung—are grown along tiny channels on the chip and recreate the conditions similar to those in the body. The idea is that drug developers, for example, could use the chips to test the effect of their drug candidates. The company, which spun out of Harvard’s Wyss Institute in 2014, recently received a grant to develop a version of their technology so that it can be sent up to the International Space Station, where it would be used to study how space travel affects the brain. Emulate is also working with FDA scientists to see how the technology might be helpful in the toxicology testing of food, cosmetics, and dietary supplements.
Ginkgo Bioworks – A Factory Approach to Making Microbes
Ginkgo Bioworks brings together advanced manufacturing, synthetic biology, software, and robotics to custom-make yeast and other microbes that clients would use to produce everything from fragrances to food ingredients. The company uses software to design the organism’s genetic circuits, then with the help of robots and other automation technologies, creates and tests those organisms, and rapidly produces large quantities of them. Ginkgo has secured more than $150 million from investors in the last two years, including a $100 million round last year. It has deals with various customers and partnerships with other synthetic biology companies, and is one of the largest purchasers of synthesized DNA in the world. Just last week, it announced that it is partnering with Bayer to create a new company that will use Ginkgo’s technology to make new crop-boosting microbes.
This is the last in a series of articles profiling the Awards finalists. You can see stories on the finalists involved in the drug pricing debate, and in the X of the Year, Big Idea, Contrarian, Newcomer, Patient Partnership, Commitment to Diversity, Young Innovator, Startup, and CEO categories. Winners will be announced in Boston on September 26 at the Awards Gala.