While the financial costs of mastitis are clear, the diagnostic options for this dairy cow infection are muddled. Laboratory tests take days to return to farmers any useful information, time that eats into a dairy farm’s milk production.
Magnomics aims to improve mastitis detection with a diagnostic device designed for farm use. The Cantanhede, Portugal-based startup says its “lab-on-a-chip” technology can offer faster, more accurate results via its small, handheld device. The Magnomics technology could help farmers make smarter use of antibiotics—particularly important as the industry fights growing antibiotic resistance. For developing a new diagnostic for farm animals and taking on an infection that costs the global dairy industry billions of dollars each year, Magnomics was named the winner of the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase, an annual event held by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Magnomics beat out 11 other companies from around the country who presented at the event last week.
The financial costs of mastitis in the U.S., estimated by the National Mastitis Council at up to $2 billion a year, have prompted agtech companies large and small to pursue ways to address the problem. Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly (NYSE: [[ticker:LLY]), received FDA approval in March for a new biological drug that works by spurring the cow’s immune system to fight off the infection before it starts. If a mastitis detection technology making North Carolina headlines sounds familiar, that could be because Durham, NC-based Advanced Animal Diagnostics (AAD) has already developed and commercialized its own test for the infection.
But João Miguel Santos Pereira, co-founder and CEO of Magnomics, says his company’s test won’t compete against AAD, adding that the two tests could actually work together. Once an AAD test detects infection, that test must still be sent to a lab for confirmation. Rather than sending those AAD samples to a lab, Pereira says they could be tested by the Magnomics device. “They tell you something is going on, we tell you what it is,” Pereira explained to me after his company was named the winner.
Joy Parr Drach, CEO of AAD, confirmed to me Pereira’s assessment of the two technologies. She acknowledged that the two companies have been talking, adding that for farmers, there are economic reasons for having access to both tests. Magnomics plans to offer its tests on disposable cartridges that cost $4 each. But even at that price, testing an entire herd would be cost prohibitive. AAD’s less expensive test provides a more affordable option for farmers to test a wider sample. The Magnomics diagnostic would come into play only when the farmer needs to know the specific nature of infection on specific cows, she says.
It will be awhile before the AAD and Magnomics technologies can work together. Magnomics is currently developing a prototype, and that device still needs to clear regulatory barriers. But Pereira projects the diagnostic will reach the market in 2019. Magnomics, which was founded in 2013 and has raised $1.8 million to date from investors, is now pursuing $6 million in funding, he says. Magnomics’ prize for winning the entrepreneurial showcase is $10,000.
The runner-up was Durham-based Precision BioSciences, a company that has developed a gene-editing technology called Arcus, which it says offers a more precise yet flexible way to edit genes compared with other gene-editing technologies. In agriculture, Precision Bio has used its technology to develop products for partners DuPont Pioneer, Agrivida, Syngenta, and Bayer CropScience.
As the runner-up in the showcase, Precision Bio won $2,500—small change compared to the company’s recent deals. A year ago, Precision Bio raised $26 million in a Series A round of funding, which the company applied toward work in human health. In February, the company landed a partnership with Baxalta (NYSE: BXLT) that paid the North Carolina biotech company $105 million up front, with milestones that reach up to $1.6 billion if the two companies can successfully develop new cancer immunotherapies.
John Salmeron, Precision Bio’s director of plant sciences, says the company’s agricultural research has produced three internal product programs. The company plans to use its new capital to expand this portfolio. Salmeron says Precision Bio is also looking for new partners interested in working with the company’s gene-editing technology.
Here’s a look at the 10 other startups that presented their technologies at the event: