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September 13th, 2023
Two electrical engineers took a fresh approach to drug discovery, merging semiconductors with cellular biology
Jeffrey Abbott is a logical guy. As a graduate student and then a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard, he was already several rungs up the academic ladder. Next rung: professorship. But, after he met fellow Harvard graduate student Vince (Wenxuan) Wu, he decided to leap to an entirely different ladder.
In 2019, Abbott and Wu launched a biotech start-up. And they took that leap right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, at a time when Boston lab space and equipment—including lab benches—were almost as hard to find as a genetic mutation.
“After securing the initial seed funding led by deep tech investor Anzu Partners, we immediately focused on setting up a new wet lab outside of Harvard. In early 2022, securing a biosafety level 2 location in Boston, let alone sourcing the basic lab equipment and supplies, proved to be a very slow and supply-chain constrained time post-pandemic,” said Duane Sword, who later joined the duo to help co- found the company, CytoTronics, Inc. “We prevailed but it was our first unforeseen challenge.”
And yet, at CytoTronics, the trio is making one notoriously complex and time-consuming process easier, faster, and potentially less expensive, too. With their invention, a semiconductor-based technology platform that can measure and manipulate all kinds of cells, from neural and cardiac to skin and almost everything in between, they can quickly gather huge amounts of cellular data. Because that data can reveal how cells react to potential new treatments—for cancer, genetic diseases, and much more—the team realized their technology could help significantly speed up drug discovery.
“We’re trying to find the winners. But you also want to find the losers faster, which saves [companies] billions in time, money, and resources,” said Sword, who joined the team after Abbott and Wu asked Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) for guidance. Chris Petty, OTD’s director of business development, introduced the two students to Sword, who is now the start-up’s chief business officer.
More importantly, swift drug discovery could save lives. Abbott and Wu’s platform isn’t limited to one cell type or one specific disease; it could, for example, help biotech and pharmaceutical companies find new treatments for chronic inflammation, which is associated with heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Their technology could even help researchers find better ways to heal wounds or test out new CRISPR-based treatments—ensuring the genetic word processor edits the right genes.
"No other platform can capture as much data, as quickly, and for all cell types—it was only logical to make it widely available."
—Jeffrey Abbott, c0-founder and CEO of CytoTronics, Inc.
If CRISPR is a genetic Swiss army knife, then the CytoTronics platform is like a cellular detective. No other platform, Abbott said, can capture as much data, as quickly, and for all cell types—it was only logical to make it widely available.
Measuring All Cell Types
But the technology wasn’t always so versatile. When Abbott and Wu were still students at Harvard, they helped design the original platform in the labs of Hongkun Park, the Mark Hyman Jr. professor of chemistry and professor of physics at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Donhee Ham, the Gordon McKay professor of electrical engineering and applied physics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
But that version was created exclusively for neural cells, and similar neuroscience-based data collection tech already existed. “We realized that it could do a lot more than just measure neurons,” Abbott said.
To double-check their theory, Abbott and Wu partnered with postdoctoral scholar Avik Mukherjee and Markus Basan, two researchers at Harvard Medical School. Sure enough, their platform could—with some tweaks—measure almost any kind of cell they wanted. And that meant they had built something that didn’t exist yet—something that filled a gap in the massive drug discovery market.
When Sword first learned about Abbott and Wu’s invention, he called it “engineered serendipity.” “You kind of stumbled across something,” he said to them. “And it turned out to be pretty darn profound.”
But even if their tech was promising, neither had experience launching a start-up company, and the learning curve was as steep as a ladder.
“We basically got crushed,” Wu said, referring to their initial attempts to contact potential customers. Not because the companies weren’t interested (they were very interested) but because the two engineers didn’t know how to pitch or sell their platform—at least not yet. “It helped us that we had to do all this customer engagement,” Wu said. “We had to learn from them.”
That’s when Abbott and Wu asked OTD for help, and Petty got involved. “When we went to OTD, I wasn’t expecting to have such hands-on, interactive help,” Abbott said. “But it really was an excellent experience both for the company and my own personal growth.”
With guidance from Sword and OTD, the road from lab to market got a whole lot smoother. OTD staff introduced the duo to potential customers—including biotechs and pharmaceuticals eager to speed up drug discovery—as well as venture capitalists and industry leaders. All provided feedback about what they—or the industry—might need from this kind of tech. Through these conversations, Abbott and Wu learned how to mold their invention to fill the existing market gap. And the OTD team helped Abbott and Wu protect their invention and find opportunities to commercialize their technology.
“There are a lot of companies out there in that multibillion-dollar space that are throwing more horsepower at it, whether it’s high-resolution cameras or artificial intelligence. But that’s still expanding upon an existing method. We’ve built a new measurement method.”
—Duane Sword, co-founder and chief business officer of CytoTronics, Inc.
Sword also helped the engineers craft more compelling pitches and helped research the competition—parallel companies that sell different but similar cellular savants. “There are a lot of companies out there in that multibillion-dollar space that are throwing more horsepower at it, whether it’s high-resolution cameras or artificial intelligence,” Sword said. “But that’s still expanding upon an existing method. We’ve built a new measurement method.”
Filling Unexplored Territory in Drug Discovery
Other measurement technologies use optical techniques; these machines rely on dyes that light up to signal something is happening in the cell. But that technique is limited. They only provide one image, taken at the end of a test, which means they can miss other cellular processes, like, for example, how water is transferred across a cell’s border. Barrier and water transport are important factors in cancer, fibrosis, inflammation, and cystic diseases. CytoTronics’ tech captures it all.
Like CytoTronics, other technologies use electrodes to capture similar data on cells. But most have just two electrodes per well (the rounded containers carved into larger plates that are used to hold samples). CytoTronics’ tech has 4,096 electrodes per well, and this will significantly increase in the next generation of the platform in the very near term.
Once Abbott and Wu discovered that their technology could fill “unexplored territory,” as Abbott put it, it was Wu who pushed the more conservative Abbott to go for the start-up route. Wu, who grew up in China, said he pursued a doctorate so he could avoid big corporations. “I don’t want to be just a small piece in a big company,” he said.
“When the technology was mature enough, we got very excited,” Wu continued. “It was like an echo chamber—one would get excited and the other would get more excited. And then we said let’s do it.”
“It was that echo chamber with Vince that convinced me,” Abbott said.
CytoTronics officially launched in 2021. Although it took about five months to find lab space and most of their pitches took place on virtual chats, the team is already growing—with help from OTD and Petty. Petty introduced the start-up team to a group of software engineers that now run CytoTronics’ data analysis and visualization efforts. Software engineers are scarce and highly coveted, especially in Boston; and start-ups must compete against Google, Meta, and Amazon. But Petty made this process easy, too.
Now, Abbott hopes to see their technology applied to up to two dozen different applications. Wu wants their platform to become an “irreplaceable component” in drug discovery, he said.
But Sword sees grander potential in CytoTronics’ platform. “This is probably the first and only example in my professional career where I could make a tangible difference to the human condition,” he said. “I’m a dad. I’d like my kids to know that I'm part of something that did good.”
“And it’s well and truly attainable,” Sword continued. “It certainly motivates the heck out of me that we can do that. And shame on us if we don’t."
View this 90 second animation on the underlying technology and CytoTronics pathway to releasing an instrument: Accelerate drug screening with live cell insights at scale
Press Contact: Kirsten Mabry | (617) 495-4157