For bioengineering professor Dino Di Carlo, publishing a paper is not the endgame in doing research, and earning a degree is just the beginning for students. Di Carlo has helped launch three biotechnology companies based on research performed with students and colleagues, pushing his lab work to the world beyond.
“As an academic, it is the wrong thing to think, ‘Just publish it and it will happen,’” Di Carlo said. “That’s not the case. If you don’t help research along towards application, most of the time it won’t get there. It is our responsibility to bring it to the next level, and to train people to have that mentality.”
The companies, with their technologies licensed by UCLA, add to the university’s intellectual property portfolio. They also create jobs for students. At least six former members of Di Carlo’s lab work or have worked for these start-ups.
CytoVale, formed in 2012, created a benchtop instrument and disposable sample cartridges that measure biophysical cell markers at more than 2,000 cells per second, rapidly and efficiently detecting disease. CytoVale succeeded in early rounds of private funding, and Di Carlo estimates that it will seek regulatory approval for its technology within two years.
Vortex Biosciences, also founded in 2012, has developed a “filterless filter” for use in medical and other applications. Forcing fluid samples through a specially designed microchannel, Vortex technology isolates circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, which are key indicators of cancer. The technique generates high-purity samples for genome analysis, allowing physicians to identify appropriate therapies. Vortex is backed by healthcare technology incubator NetScientific.
This year, Di Carlo and Tatiana Segura, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, along with post-docs Westbrook Weaver and Don Griffin, launched Tempo Therapeutics based on their work with a degradable, microscopic scaffold that encourages tissue growth at the site of a wound.
Working with prospective investors has honed Di Carlo’s approach to research projects. He is thinking beyond “proof of concept” research that merely shows what is possible, and is envisioning the technology as applied.
“This might be specific to microfluidics, but when you go from prototyping the devices to manufacturing, that’s a big jump,” Di Carlo said. “Some things we can make very easily in the prototyping world are hard to make in the manufacturing world.”
He believes his UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences students also must look ahead.
”Often, graduate students get very focused on a small piece of research, which they need to do,” Di Carlo said. “But they also need to see the bigger picture – where that work fits in with everything else. A Ph.D. is only a point on the road to something bigger.”