ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New technology from the University of New Mexico that could radically speed the analysis of tissue samples for medical diagnostics and drug discovery is a step closer to market thanks to a $300,000 round of funding for local startup company Eta Diagnostics Inc.
Eta, which formed last year to commercialize UNM’s technology, will use the seed round to build a commercial prototype of a new cytometer, or cell meter, that could potentially screen tissue samples at a superfast rate of up to one million cells per second.
“The proceeds will allow us to significantly improve upon and commercialize UNM’s foundational intellectual property,” said Eta President and CEO Michael J. Cumbo. “The company’s first high throughput industrial prototype will be ready for evaluation by customers within three months.”
The company already used part of the seed money to convert a previous “option to license” UNM’s technology – which Eta received last year from the university – into what is now an “exclusive license” to take the technology to market.
“We just signed the agreements with them,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “We’re really excited about their accomplishments to date. They’re getting some really good feedback from potential customers.”
Eta has signed two non-disclosure agreements with two large companies that are interested in using the cytometer technology, and it’s now negotiating a similar agreement with a third firm.
“We have three blue chip life science customers,” Cumbo said. “They’re publicly traded, well-known companies in our field.”
Such interest is not surprising, since flow cytometers are broadly used for clinical research worldwide. Cytometers typically allow users to screen tens of thousands of cells per second in fluids that are fed through the machines.
UNM, however, has created an acoustic process that uses sound waves to separate the fluids into multiple channels as they flow through the machine, thus allowing the researchers to screen a lot more tissue samples at once. And, UNM created a highly advanced optical system capable of screening all those extra samples simultaneously, potentially permitting the analysis of hundreds of thousands of cells per second.
Eta eventually wants to sell the machine for use in detecting cancers in human blood samples. But to do that, it must further upgrade the optical system to rapidly locate rare tumor cells hidden among billions of normal ones, Cumbo said.
The company’s first prototype, then, will be aimed at less-sensitive detection tasks, such as screening for bacteria or contamination in manufacturing processes in the pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries.
“Real-time purity and sterility monitoring could save them a lot of money,” Cumbo said.
Next year, Eta will raise another $3 million in venture funding, but the company could face pressure to relocate out of state, since it had difficulty getting in-state investors to participate even in the seed round, and investors in other places often want companies to operate nearby them.
“I’m guardedly optimistic that we’ll find investors who will allow us to stay here,” Cumbo said. “But there are no guarantees.”