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Akadeum Aims to Disrupt Cell-Sorting Technology with Microbubbles

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Akadeum Life Sciences is doing something that most biotechs don’t, says CEO Brandon McNaugton: practicing the lean startup method, which puts a heavy focus on customer discovery and feedback.

It was this process of talking to customers that inspired Ann Arbor, MI-based Akadeum to develop the Application Discovery Program, a tool it uses to help customers with their research that we’ll delve deeper into in a minute. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a startup that is already working to change the way cell sorting is performed and thought about.

In scientific and medical research, cells often must be separated from their surroundings—T-cells from blood, for example—before they can be studied. McNaughton says current cell separation methods can be time-consuming, costly, and damaging to cells.

To mitigate those issues, Akadeum has developed a product that incorporates buoyancy-activated cell sorting. Microbubbles—tiny spheres made out of silica that are one-tenth the width of human hair—are added to biological samples, where they attach to target cells, such as T-cells or cancer cells. After a few minutes, the microbubbles float the target cells to the top of the sample, allowing a researcher to collect and remove them. (There’s a video at the end of this post that explains the process in more detail.)

“We can go into biological samples and fish out specific cells for research and diagnostics,” says John Younger, Akadeum’s chief technology officer.

Younger is a doctor who worked in emergency medicine until earlier this year, when he left his post at the University of Michigan to work full time on Akadeum. “I’ve always been interested in the intersection of business and science,” he says. “The problem would come up where you have a biological sample that’s a mix of cells and other junk, and you have to go in and pull out one thing. The most attractive, straightforward way to do that is to use microbubbles. It’s like a biomolecular lock and key to engage one cell type and nothing else.”

The two main cell-sorting technologies being used right now, Younger says, involve a “wonderful but slow and expensive” laser-activated method or one that relies on magnets to separate cells from their surroundings. “We’re faster than lasers and more gentle than magnets,” Younger maintains. “And our price is competitive.”

McNaughton says that Akadeum’s customers are researchers working in life sciences, diagnostics, academia, food pathogens, and cell therapy—markets that combined generate several billion dollars in annual sales, he adds. The company is currently selling bottles of microbubble reagent on its website for $400, which allow for 40 extractions. The fully developed product, to be released next year, will include both the microbubbles and an instrument used to collect the microbubbles.

To help make the case for its product to customers, Akadeum has created an Application Discovery Program, where researchers can fill out a short online form telling the company what they’d like to use the bubbles for. If selected, they get early access to the most recent generation of Akadeum’s microbubbles at a discount, along with technical support..

“Once we started talking to our users, we created the Application Discovery Program,” McNaughton says. “It lets them come to us with use cases. That’s the amazing thing about our technology—once they see it, they bring up uses we hadn’t thought of. We wanted to find a way to harness their enthusiasm.”

Akadeum’s investors are enthusiastic about the Application Discovery Program, too. The company closed on a $1 million seed round earlier this month; investors included Michigan eLab, Detroit Innovate, Invest Michigan, U-M’s MINTS program, and patent attorney Jeffrey Schox.

Doug Neal, managing director of Michigan eLab and one of Akadeum’s board members, said in a press release that it’s not often biotech startups have paying customers 18 months after the company is formed, and it was the dedication to a software startup-style approach that interested him just as much as Akadeum’s disruptive technology.

McNaughton says Akadeum, which currently employs a team of four people, will pursue a Series A round in 2016.