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Earth-​​based startup gets a boost from space

November 1, 2013

Two weeks after being named a finalist in Mass­Chal­lenge, the world’s largest ven­ture accel­er­ator, North­eastern spinoff Quad Tech­nolo­gies has been selected to receive a $45,000 award from the Center for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence in Space as part of the accel­er­ator program’s “sidecar challenge.”

Quad Tech­nolo­gies was one of eight star­tups selected by CASIS through the Mass­Chal­lenge Startup Accel­er­ator at a cer­e­mony Wednesday evening to receive funding that will leverage their research on the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion U.S. National Laboratory.

“The CASIS prize pro­vides a unique oppor­tu­nity for Quad,” said Shashi Murthy, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering at North­eastern who is the startup’s co-​​founder and chief sci­en­tific adviser. “It will yield insights that will allow Quad to improve its pro­duc­tion process on earth as well as make some fun­da­mental con­tri­bu­tions to basic research.”

Quad Tech­nolo­gies spe­cial­izes in making a dis­solv­able, mag­netic hydrogel that can be used to iso­late bio­log­ical entities—like cells or proteins—from a sur­rounding matrix such as blood or tissue.

For example, so-​​called hematopoi­etic stem cells exist in the blood and could rev­o­lu­tionize the bio­log­ical engi­neering and health­care indus­tries by replacing con­tro­ver­sial embry­onic stem cells in a range of research appli­ca­tions. But they are cur­rently inac­ces­sible using stan­dard procedures.

“Quad is building a microbead plat­form for the sep­a­ra­tion of rare stem cells from bio­log­ical tis­sues,” said co-​​founder Brian Plouffe, who earned his master’s degree and doc­torate in chem­ical engi­neering from North­eastern. “We’re trying to iso­late these stem cells for appli­ca­tion in diag­nos­tics, tissue engi­neering, and regen­er­a­tive medicine.”

But making these microbeads is no easy task. The team is forming the beads using a drop-​​based tech­nique that is highly sus­cep­tible to the impacts of gravity. But because the hydrogel con­sists of a het­ero­ge­neous mix­ture of mag­netic nanopar­ti­cles, each one comes out a dif­ferent size.

By removing gravity from the equa­tion, Plouffe and his col­leagues hope to deter­mine the best pro­ce­dure for making uni­formly sized droplets, which would stream­line the microbead pro­duc­tion process.

CASIS was estab­lished as the main research arm of NASA in 2011 for car­rying out sci­ence in space and max­i­mizing the use of the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion through 2020. It is ded­i­cated to sup­porting and accel­er­ating inno­va­tions and new dis­cov­eries that will enhance the health and well­being of people and our planet.

The award will allow the Quad team to partner with the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion to study the effects of gravity on their process.

“They’re going to make beads in space, we’re going to make iden­tical beads on earth,” said Plouffe. “We’ll do a side-​​by-​​side com­par­ison to basi­cally decouple the gravity effects and in doing so we’ll be able to opti­mize our process and form design equa­tions for forming the beads.”

This is the first time droplet for­ma­tion will be studied in a micro­gravity envi­ron­ment.  Thus, said Plouffe, the research stands to inform much more than just a better microbead for Quad.