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UNM tech spinoff attracts $1.5M investment

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new cell screening and analysis technology that accelerates tissue-processing rates by up to 100-fold is nearing market, boosted by a $1.5 million venture investment in local startup BennuBio.

The company is commercializing a University of New Mexico breakthrough in flow-through cytometers, or cell meters, which are used to rapidly analyze millions, and often billions of cells for medical diagnostics and drug discovery.

Today’s cytometers can process only about 10,000 cells per second because tissue samples are pushed through cytometers one at a time. In addition, when screening complex conglomerates of cells, the process slows down to 100 cells per second.

BennuBio’s technology processes up to 10 tissue samples through a cytometer simultaneously, allowing researchers to screen up to 100,000 cells per second for simple tissue samples. For the more complex conglomerates, it can screen up to 10,000 cells per second, or 100 times more than today’s technology, said BennuBio President and CEO Steven Graves, a UNM chemical and biological engineering professor who developed the technology.

Such speeds can be critical for researchers, especially when seeking rare cells.

“When you’re looking for just a few cells out of five billion, that can help find the quintessential needle in a haystack,” Graves said.

Unlike most cytometers, which use fluids to flow single tissue samples through the machine, BennuBio uses sound waves to separate samples into multiple channels for parallel processing.

Using sound waves also makes sample preparation easier and faster, and it allows researchers to re-use samples for further screening to confirm findings. With fluids, samples can be used only once.

Given BennuBio’s market potential, New Mexico-based Tramway Venture Partners, Cottonwood Technology and Sun Mountain Capital jointly invested $1.5 million in the company in August. Another $500,000 is expected from those investors, or others, in the coming weeks.

Both Tramway and Cottonwood have received money from the state’s Catalyst Fund, which invests in local venture firms to channel more capital to early-stage startups in New Mexico. This is Tramway’s second Catalyst-backed investment, and Cottonwood’s third.

“We’re very excited about BennuBio’s potential impact,” said Tramway managing partner Waneta Tuttle. “It could be transformative for researchers.”

The company expects to begin selling its first cytometers to research clinics and pharmaceutical developers by mid-2019.

Its machines are already well advanced. Graves and his team have been developing them since 2013, when serial entrepreneur Mike Cumbo licensed the technology from UNM and launched a startup, ETA Diagnostics, to market it.

But ETA had difficulty raising capital, encouraging Graves to restructure the company and bring on more cytometry experts. That includes BennuBio board member Terry Dunlay, who previously used different UNM technology to speed up cytometry processing through his own company, IntelliCyt Corp., which German pharmaceutical firm Sartorius AG acquired for $90 million in 2016.

The team, plus the company’s imminent march to market, sealed the deal with investors.

“They have a working prototype in place,” said Cottonwood managing director David Blivin. “We expect initial customer trials by year end, and sales by next year.”

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