Bridging the Laboratory to Marketplace Gap
By Eric Wright
The Internet, GPS, seat belts, lithium-ion batteries, plasma and touch screens, LED’s, solar panels, CAT scans, Gatorade — the common denominator all these technologies and products, and thousands more, share is they all were developed by university researchers.
Despite this astounding track record, the challenge of moving breakthrough university-based research into the marketplace remains daunting. Often, the scientific or technical expertise that develops a potentially revolutionary product is not paired with the business acumen that can assemble the players, along with the capital, necessary to bring an innovation to market.
There are exceptions, like the ones cited, that have changed the world. Looking ahead, Nano Discovery could be added to this list and, in the process, put Central Florida on the global bio-medical technology map.
Recently, University of Central Florida (UCF) professor Dr. Qun (Treen) Huo and her team discovered a new technique for chemical and biological detection and analysis using gold nanoparticle optical probes, coupled with dynamic light scattering, which they call NanoDLSay™ or D2Dx. This process is a one-step immunoassay or, simply put, a means of testing for and identifying viruses, like Zika, in a blood sample with the potential of identifying, quickly and efficiently, a host of other diseases.
What makes this so revolutionary is to do an assay like this normally requires a machine that performs a complex multi-step procedure in a laboratory-like environment that fills a small room. Attempts have been made to miniaturize this process without real success. Huo’s device occupies no more space than a small, portable printer, and its portability and affordability may have implications for those seeking testing in remote, underserved regions. In addition, the test requires only a small sample of blood.
“I believe our technology can make a big difference in the diagnostic industry,” she asserted. “We have a very simple, elegant and unique new immunoassay that can be potentially used for the diagnosis of many types of diseases.”
The technology will also allow Huo and her team to develop new tests to obtain health information that no other tests currently in the market can provide. She added, “I’m optimistic we will bring some revolutionary advancement to healthcare.”
From Lab to Market
The company Huo started, Nano Discovery Inc. was formed to commercialize this technology by working with the Office of Research and Commercialization at UCF and their Technology Transfer team. Back in 2009, these UCF organizations helped to protect her discoveries through several patent applications and then licensed the technology to her company. That same year, Nano Discovery was accepted into the UCF Business Incubation Program. However, moving the technology to market seemed to be stalled until Huo found Davian Santana on an Internet search.
“I read the story of Vista Clinical Diagnostics and Davian,” she explained. “I was utterly impressed by Davian’s accomplishments. The diagnostic industry is a highly competitive business, and to be able to start from scratch and build a strong and robust diagnostic company like Vista Clinical left me without any doubt about Davian’s acumen as a businessman.”
Santana, the founder and president of Vista Clinical, which is based in Clermont, responded to Huo’s request and came to UCF to meet her and get a grasp of what she had developed. He immediately recognized and was captivated by not only how the technology greatly simplified a very complicated process, but also Nano Discovery’s ability to deliver that process in such a small device.
A Veteran on Multiple Levels
Vista Clinical is an entrepreneurial story that rivals the likes of hotelier Harris Rosen. Santana was introduced to the blending of science and technology in the U.S. Navy, where he developed a knack for understanding how complex diagnostic and robotic machinery worked and the science it was meant to deliver. These are subjects he is still fascinated by and talks about like an enthusiast would describe a racing yacht or an art connoisseur a Rembrandt painting.
After leaving the Navy he transferred this passion over to his civilian career working as a clinical engineer with companies like Beckman Coulter, installing, testing, training and servicing medical procedure and analysis equipment across the state.
During this time Santana began pondering how to move from being a well-paid employee to an owner. Though many are bit by the entrepreneurial bug, he took an unusual track to realize his dream.
Rather than borrowing the incredible amounts of money it would take to launch a medical testing facility, Santana and his partner at the time decided to boot strap their venture. Continuing with their “day jobs,” they bought used equipment that was not working up to the industry’s rigid standards and repaired and installed it themselves in their facility in Clermont.
“We worked nights and weekends, personally running every line, connecting all the terminals, plus, using our technical and science backgrounds, brought each piece of equipment into top working order,” he said.
Then, like most entrepreneurs, he recognized that the best clinical diagnostic facility in the state had no value unless it had clients who used its services, so he put on the business development hat and hit the street.
“That wasn’t an easy transition for me,” he said. “I’m a science and technology guy, not a natural salesman, but I had to do it if we were going to survive.”
Santana carved out a niche for his company by bringing same-day test results to nursing facilities. Often, with prompt test results nursing homes can greatly reduce the need to transfer patients to hospitals, which saves time and expense for everyone. “As we brought a higher level of service to this underserved market, our reputation and our footprint rapidly increased,” he said.
From 2004 to 2017, Vista Clinical grew into the largest privately-help clinical laboratory services provider in the southeast.
An Exit to a New Entrance
Santana was able to craft the sale of a major portion of Vista Clinical to LabCorp, one of the world’s leading healthcare diagnostics companies. He held on to his diagnostic facility in Clermont and his sites outside of Florida.
Still in the midst of the transition of his company over to LabCorp, he received a reach out from Huo regarding her technology. Shantala Weiss, who handles marketing for Vista Clinical, had aggressively promoted the company’s capabilities to test for the Zika virus, which was the catalyst for Huo’s initial inquiry.
“I could immediately visualize what it would replace, how it would be applied, how it would be marketed and how it would be used.”
– Davian Santana
Once Santana talked to Huo and visited her laboratory at UCF, the Nano Discovery technology and opportunity captured his imagination and passion on every level. “It’s one thing to cut down the expense involved in a typical test of this type, which is significant in and of itself. What makes this truly incredible is it’s mobile,” he explained. “It eliminates the need for large costly machines, which require a specialized environment, multiple steps, electricity and extensive training to use. I don’t use the word ‘disruptive’ lightly, mainly because it’s overused, but this truly is.”
What Huo was looking for in Santana was someone who could translate what she had developed in such a way that business people understood what the market potential was. Because of his background and expertise, Santana was able to instantly recognize everything Huo was hoping a business ambassador would see. “I could immediately visualize what it would replace, how it would be applied, how it would be marketed and how it would be used,” he recalled.
“We spent years of strenuous and rigorous research to develop multiple tests and to accumulate a large amount of clinical study data to back the successful application of this technology,” Huo said. “We’ve also developed and manufactured working prototypes.”
Santana concluded, “The simplicity and portability of Nano Discovery’s technology enables us to bring complex testing to the remotest village or your neighborhood walk-in clinic, and this is significant.”