Raj Krishnan grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s, a time when “you could throw an idea against the wall and somebody would give you $30 million to build something.”
But when it came time to bring his Ph.D. research from lab bench to business, the recession had hit and licensing out his Ph.D. work—“even if I had wanted to”—wasn't an option. He founded his molecular diagnostics company, Biological Dynamics, in 2010, thanks to a “series of serendipitous events.”
He did it with the help of his mentor, Michael Heller, Ph.D., a nanoengineering professor at the University of California, San Diego who’s started a few companies of his own. San Diego proved the perfect birthplace for the company, with a pool of talent, investors and mentors to help build it.
“I am a firm believer in being the least smart person in the room. I don’t say the dumbest because I’m not trying to be dumb—the idea is to surround myself with amazing mentors and people who have done it before,” Krishnan, who has a Ph.D. in bioengineering from UCSD, told FierceBiotech. The smart people he keeps company with include Biological Dynamics board members Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, Martin Wygod, the former WebMD chairman and industry vets Kip Miller and Paul Maier.
Krishnan’s work marries electrical engineering—mostly used for cell phones, computers and the like—with bioengineering in lab-on-a-chip technology designed to isolate any particle or combination of particles from any solution, he said. This is how the company plans to catch cancer early and get closer to a cure.
“I was applying electrical engineering principles into bioengineering, which is something very few people had figured out how to do,” Krishnan said. “I stumbled upon something amazing using AC electrokinetic fields.”
Biological Dynamics’ technology uses AC electric fields—that is, the kind that come out of a wall socket—to pull particles out of a solution, such as blood, plasma, saliva or urine, to be used in diagnostic testing. What sets it apart from other methods is that the sample is “directly isolated,” meaning it doesn’t need any processing before testing. After the particle is isolated, the company performs secondary analysis, such as sequencing.
“It’s hard to find a technology that isolates the type of particle you want. Ordinarily in biotech, what ends up happening is you have to process a sample somehow,” Krishnan said. “I call it either a black box or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: when you do a bunch of stuff to a fluid, what you end up with is not necessarily what was there in the first place.”
Essentially, the act of trying to pull a particle out of, say, a blood sample, might end up changing, or even destroying that particle: “To isolate particles, you can throw harsh detergents at them, do something mechanical, do something chemical, try to bind them with stuff... You don’t know what the impact of the stuff you did to it was,” Krishnan said.
Biological Dynamics is taking a three-pronged approach: it’s working on a point-of-care diagnostics tool, a system that monitors patients’ response to cancer treatment and a lab-on-a-chip for research use.
"The OmniVerita system, which means ‘all truth,’ is the first product we’re trying to bring to market,” Krishnan said. The benchtop analyzer has various applications, but its first use will be gauging the treatment responses of patients with late-stage non-small cell lung cancer.
The company is also working on a mobile version, dubbed OmniVerita M. The point-of-care device plugs into a smartphone via USB and analyzes a fingertip blood sample. It is designed to do the same kinds of tests as the benchtop device, but its portability makes it useful for other situations, such as in field hospitals, rural areas and other low-resource settings.
Last November, Biological Dynamics picked up a Gates Foundation grant to develop a smartphone-based test for tuberculosis. Though the company had not initially thought of testing for infectious disease, it gave it a shot.
“We started out looking at cancer because that’s the emperor of all maladies, the plague of the 21st century and something we really wanted to tackle,” Krishnan said. “Something we discovered while doing this is the robustness of the technology. We are able to isolate exosomes, exosome-based proteins and other biomarkers in addition to DNA.”
It’s working on OmniVerita M in two streams, as Krishnan calls them. The first is building the mobile platform to be used with any kind of test—“basically, the same test you would run in a lab, you would run in the field.” The second is creating a new test for tuberculosis.
“The tests we use to detect tuberculosis in the developed world are very good but too expensive to deploy in places that don’t have the infrastructure,” Krishnan said. The TB skin test requires a patient to come back to the doctor’s office two to three days after receiving an injection, while the blood test must be sent away to lab.
Eventually, the company will merge the two streams, putting the new tuberculosis test on its OmniVerita M device. Biological Dynamics has secured a second grant from the Gates Foundation to work on wireless control and charging of the mobile platform. The goal is to reduce the rate of user error as well as dependence on wired power sources.
Biological Dynamics is in the midst of fundraising ahead of bringing its OmniVerita treatment-monitoring test for NSCLC to the FDA and then to market. It’s also working on its research tool, ExoVerita. The company is partnering with academic researchers on the benchtop version and plans to get the mobile version up and running by the end of the year, at which point it will start seeking partners.