Northeastern startup named finalist in global competition

By: news@Northeastern

On their first day of grad­uate school at North­eastern, Sean Kevlahan told Adam Hatch of his ambi­tious vision: Hatch would invent some­thing amazing, and Kevlahan would help him sell it. Four years later, their biotech­nology startup Quad Tech­nolo­gies has made it to the final round of the pres­ti­gious 2013 Mass­Chal­lenge, an annual global startup com­pe­ti­tion that this year has more than $1 mil­lion in accel­er­ator grant funding up for grabs.

In 2012, Kevlahan and Hatch co-​​founded Quad, which aims to com­mer­cialize a unique dis­solv­able hydrogel, along with fellow class­mate Brian Plouffe and asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering, Shashi Murthy. In June, the com­pany, which has received sup­port from Northeastern’s student-​​run ven­ture accel­er­ator IDEA and the Health Sci­ences Entre­pre­neurs pro­gram, was named one of 128 Mass­Chal­lenge semi-​​finalists from a pool of more than 1,200 appli­cants. Since then, the North­eastern entre­pre­neurs have been privy to an elite lineup of talks, lec­tures, and net­working events; finan­cial, spa­tial, and men­tor­ship resources; and the gen­eral “water-​​cooler effect” that emerges when you put more than 100 inno­v­a­tive thinkers in one room.

On Tuesday, Mass­Chal­lenge once again whit­tled down the com­pe­ti­tion, this time from 128 star­tups to 26. As part of the elite group, Kevlahan will have the chance to pitch his busi­ness to a panel of judges com­prising startup exec­u­tives from com­pa­nies ranging from Kayak to ZipCar.

The results of the final round of the com­pe­ti­tion will be announced on Oct. 30 at the Boston Con­ven­tion and Exhi­bi­tion Center, where $1 mil­lion in accel­er­ator grants will be dished out. In addi­tion, three Mass­Chal­lenge spon­sors will also award prizes to some entrepreneurs.

“I already feel we’ve won,” said Kevlahan. “We’ve made great con­nec­tions, learned a lot, and received feed­back from high-​​level CEOs.”

The proph­e­sied inven­tion that gave birth to Quad is called QuickGel, which con­sists of an algae-​​derived polymer, poly­eth­ylene glycol, and a change­able “cap­ture pro­tein,” Kevlahan explained. This pro­tein works like a lock and key to selec­tively bind par­tic­ular cell types or bio­log­ical mol­e­cules. The beauty of the system is that a simple trick of chem­istry allows it to readily dis­solve once its job is done.

These cre­ative entre­pre­neurial minds envi­sion many appli­ca­tions for this mate­rial, but one is already promising to trans­form one field in par­tic­ular: stem cell research.

Plouffe, whose exper­tise lies in mag­netic cell sep­a­ra­tion and iso­la­tion, imme­di­ately rec­og­nized a use for the mate­rial in the con­tentious field. Stem cells hold great promise for treat­ment advances in dis­eases ranging from ALS to Parkinson’s Dis­ease to Hodgkin’s Lym­phoma, but there’s cur­rently no effec­tive method to purify the cells, which can derive any other cell type in the body.

It turns out there are hun­dreds of stem cells cir­cu­lating through our blood streams at any given moment. If we could har­vest those cells, said Kevlahan, then the need for con­tro­ver­sial embry­onic stem cells would become obsolete.

Stan­dard tech­nolo­gies use mag­netic par­ti­cles to sep­a­rate the stem cells from their sur­round­ings. The only problem with this method is the par­ti­cles never loosen their grip. Coating them with QuickGel pro­vides a straight­for­ward workaround, according to Kevlahan, and opens a flood­gate of inno­va­tion for stem cell researchers. “I like to say that stem cells are the next gold rush, and we’re sup­plying the pickaxe,” he said.