FirstStep Diagnostics takes home first place for early diagnostic test for autism spectrum disorder.
UCI Applied Innovation named the four top teams in its Tech Surge track of the 2018 New Venture Competition, hosted by the Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Paul Merage School of Business. The Tech Surge specialty award track focuses on the translation of UCI-generated innovations and is open to teams who use UCI intellectual property as a core element of the business they enter in the competition. Winners of the Tech Surge track are eligible for over $25,000 in grant money to further develop their ventures post-competition in the Wayfinder Incubator program at UCI Applied Innovation.
FirstStep Diagnostics, which developed an early diagnostic test for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), claimed first place in Tech Surge, winning $10,000. The team aims to begin two different clinical trials with the goal of acquiring a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments/ College of American Pathologists (CLIA/CAP) certification.
“We hope to use a $100,000 Proof of Product grant from UCI Applied Innovation to work on a longitudinal trial to determine the [test’s] effect over time and we will also be conducting a separate clinical validation trial,” said Max Lechner, M.B.A. student and FirstStep Diagnostics chief executive officer. “Those are our big milestones for this year because we hope to enter the market by 2020.”
Based off of intellectual property developed by John Jay Gargus, UCI professor of physiology and biophysics, Ph.D., chief scientific officer, FirstStep Diagnostics, their test takes a sample of a newborn baby’s skin cells and measures calcium signaling strength to determine the probability of developing ASD. Gargus’ invention, “A potential biomarker for Autism Spectrum Disorders,” identified the existence of defective calcium signaling in Fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis disorder, which his research team determined is a viable diagnostic tool for ASD.
According to Talk About Curing Autism, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to educating, empowering and supporting families affected by autism, establishing an early diagnosis is imperative in the child’s neurological development.
By identifying possible ASD within the first several weeks of a newborn’s life, parents can take proactive treatment measures. The current median age of first diagnosis for ASD is four years, eight months, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“At the end of the day, you have to look at how this affects the patient,” said Lechner. “The FDA is looking at laboratory-developed tests more and what we are doing is looking at a test that signals a very low-risk intervention, which is behavioral therapy—so, low risk, but very high reward.”
During the competition, the team participated in another UCI Applied Innovation program, I-Corps @ UCI, which trains teams to assess the commercial potential of their technology, broaden the impact of their research projects, and develop effective solutions to customer problems.
Closed Loop Plastics placed second in the Tech Surge track of the competition and took home $7,500. The team, led by UCI alumni, developed a processing method that transforms plastic waste into usable filament for 3D printing. Closed Loop Plastics is a graduate of UCI Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder Incubator and I-Corps programs.
LaserFocus took home third place in Tech Surge and $5,000. The team is developing a hand-held, reusable and inexpensive laser device for non-invasive surgical procedures to treat deviated nasal septa.
“Most of our funding is going towards FDA approvals and clinical trials, which will begin in a year,” said Nasam Chokr, a senior biomedical engineering student and team lead of LaserFocus. “We have partnerships with UCI medical center, as well as UCLA, so we will be collaborating with them to do our clinical trials.”
LaserFocus is a current participant in UCI Applied Innovation’s BioENGINE and I-Corps programs.
A repeat participant from last year’s Tech Surge competition, EchoSol placed fourth and received $2,500. The team produces software that improves clinical diagnoses of heart conditions to help physicians make more accurate and robust decisions regarding their patient’s healthcare. The software also improves workflow efficiency by automating a sonographer’s regular task of calculating cardiac segmentation, which saves the clinician up to 20 minutes per patient.
The finals of the Tech Surge competition took place all day at The Cove @ UCI on May 16. Eighteen participating teams presented a slide deck and 12-minute oral presentation that covered their long-term paths towards commercialization for a panel of judges. The panel selected the winning teams based on how well they solved a problem and pain point, addressed their market ecosystem, outlined a viable commercialization pathway, specified financial and technical milestones over the next 12-to-24 months, and delivered a quality presentation.
As an integral component of UCI Applied Innovation’s suite of programs, the Tech Surge competition supports UCI startups and commercializes university technology. Stay tuned for next year’s competition, which kicks off during the 2018 fall quarter.