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Small Business Innovators Talk about Their Emerging Biotech

November 7, 2014
Last June, for the first time, the BIO International Convention hosted a special section on the convention floor for early stage startups and small companies to share their biotech innovations.

About 50 companies in all made up this Innovation Zone, a space jointly created by BIO, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and foot traffic was heavy. Attendees got first-person accounts of some of the most inventive, potentially transformative biotech (and now you can feel like you were there and watch a sample too!).

World-class tradeshows such as the BIO Convention are showing a renewed focus on spotlighting emerging research and development from tech pioneers.

That could be because the industry recognizes that the technology behind some of today’s greatest innovations, such as bladeless LASIK eye surgery, often come from inventive small companies. The most “out there” ideas from these startups and small businesses can lead to life-saving tools.

This resurgence is gaining support from the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which helps startups and small businesses attend tradeshows like the BIO Convention. These events are prime opportunities to get face time with potential commercialization partners.

NSF’s SBIR/STTR program helped to catalyze the commercialization of high-risk technological innovations to the tune of about $160 million in fiscal year 2014 alone. NSF funds the type of proof-of-concept, platform projects that are often picked up by NIH or in the private sector by investors and commercial partners, who fund drug or device development later on.

“We’re interested in the most futuristic, disruptive and transformative technologies that can address great societal needs,” says Jesus Soriano, a program director for NSF's SBIR/STTR program.

“Some people would think that we are looking for Star Trek-type of concepts – and we are. But, there are three key differences between my program and what you see on TV: we require very strong science and/or engineering, sound preliminary data, and, of course, great commercial potential.”

Watch six of the Innovation Zone entrepreneurs talk about their tech:

Faster, more sensitive imaging of live cells

Developing new drugs requires that researchers observe how cells react to that drug over long periods of time. NSF-funded small business Phi Optics has developed an optical microscope that lets scientists study living cells in their natural environments. Catalin Chiritescu talks about how the technology works.

Cancer-scanning device detects residual cancer cells post-surgery

Despite a surgeon’s best efforts, residual cancer cells often remain after a tumor is removed. Now, a technology from NSF-funded small business NovaScan detects cancer cells in living tissue in real-time. The cancer-scanning device has already been used to target breast cancer cells. NovaScan’s William Gregory shows how the wand works.

Clearing feeding tubes faster

Feeding tubes often become clogged with medication and food, depriving patients of nutrition. NSF-funded small business Actuated Medical has invented an FDA-approved device that clears clogs quickly and cleanly. Roger Bagwell demonstrates how the device works.

Leveraging the immune system to fight cancer

Inventors are using small-scale biology and engineering to find ways to use the body’s natural defenses to effectively treat cancer. NSF-funded small business GigaGen uses microfluidics, bioinformatics and genome sequencing to look for antibodies that may be good candidates for new therapies. GigaGen’s David Johnson explains how.

Monitoring multiple biomarkers at once

NSF-funded small business Applied Biosensors has created sensors that continuously monitor multiple biomarkers. The core technology has implications for biomedical research, water quality management and metabolic monitoring, among others. Prashant Tathireddy talks about the technology works.

An in-mouth wafer to treat oral cancer

To treat oral cancer, NSF-funded small business Privo Technologies has created a platform that delivers treatments directly to the affected area. Privo develops new classes of targeted treatments, such as chemotherapy drugs, designed to be delivered through the mouth’s mucous membranes. Privo founder Manijeh Goldberg talks about her company’s research.

Sarah Bates is a Public Affairs Specialist at the National Science Foundation.