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Crowdfunding could speed cancer diagnostic

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This photo shows a prototype of Eta\’s cytometer technology under development. (Courtesy ETA)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Serial entrepreneur Michael J. Cumbo launched his first crowdfunding campaign in May to accelerate development of new technology his company, Eta Diagnostics Inc., is building to rapidly detect cancer cells in blood.

The company, which launched in 2013 and closed on a $300,000 seed round of funding last December, is commercializing new technology from the University of New Mexico to immensely speed the analysis of tissue samples in cytometers, or cell meters, which are commonly used for medical diagnostics in laboratories and clinics.

The company is building a commercial prototype of the machine for use in clinical research, but its long-term goal is to upgrade the technology to rapidly measure tumor cells in patients’ bloodstreams. That would improve treatment and possibly pave the way for a future cancer exam that could become a standard part of annual blood testing.

Under the company’s current timeline, the cancer-detection machine would be ready for human clinical trials by 2019 to achieve U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. But with some 1.6 million new cancer cases every year, Cumbo felt urgency to accelerate development, particularly after his friend and mentor — optics professor Stephen Jacobs of the University of Rochester — died from a brain tumor in May.

“I feel some sense of personal urgency, and I want to honor his memory,” Cumbo said. “The crowdfunding campaign could be a way to jumpstart development a couple of years ahead of schedule.”

The company is seeking $1.6 million from contributors through Indiegogo in a campaign that will end in mid-July. It’s currently preparing a series A raise from institutional investors to finish building the first commercial cytometer for clinical research, which does not need FDA approval. But the upgrades for the cancer-screening technology will take longer and require more money.

“The series A and the crowdfunding campaign provide a parallel capital process to get started earlier on the cancer-detection technology,” Cumbo said. “If we don’t reach our goal in the crowdfunding effort, it won’t affect our overall technology development road map, it would just mean more time to get ready for clinical testing.”

An optics and electrical engineer, Cumbo has managed commercialization strategies for many companies over the last 30 years. But this is his first stab at crowdfunding, which, apart from raising capital, can help build awareness of Eta among institutional investors, potentially improving prospects for series A funding.

Lisa Kuuttila, president and CEO of the Science and Technology Corp. — UNM’s tech-transfer office — said Eta’s success on Indiegogo could prove educational for other startups commercializing UNM technology.

“We want to see how it works out, because we’d like other startups to take advantage of crowdfunding too,” Kuuttila said. “It can bring a lot of visibility to a product and a company apart from raising funds, and that visibility is just as important for an early stage startup like Eta Diagnostics.”

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