by Saemmool Lee
Applying new tech solutions for stubborn health care challenges is big business. At the
CITRIS Foundry, in-house startup accelerator of CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, about
40 percent of their current portfolio of companies are either in the health field or life
sciences. The startups vary from therapeutics and medical devices to consumer health
care, and one cluster is tackling antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, often called
“We’re seeing technologies from other disciplines now being applied to health and life
sciences,” explains Alic Chen, CITRIS Foundry co-founder. “Along with AI and machine
learning, there have been huge advancements in physical technologies such as high
throughput screens, and scalable manufacturing methods.” Health startups have generally
faced higher costs and higher chances of failure than other startups, but Chen says that
calculation is changing.
“All the components to starting a biotech company – access to expensive capital
equipment, access to cutting edge reagents, DNA synthesis and sequencing – the cost for
all of these has been dropping precipitously,” Chen says. “And the previous generation of
biotech startups have created the enabling technologies that are now readily available to
While bio startups often require bigger investment, their potential to generate high returns
offers a competitive advantage. At a CITRIS-sponsored talk on “Building a Successful
Bio Startup” last spring, Y Combinator president Sam Altman emphasized that investors
think in terms of “return relative to risk” rather than “absolute cost in dollars.” Says
Altman, “People are not afraid of big numbers if the payoff is really big as well.”
It is these changing conditions that have spurred several ambitious startups to tackle
previously insurmountable health challenges, namely: bacterial infections.
A pair of Berkeley postdoctoral researchers founded BioAmp Diagnostics to develop
rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests to detect antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. The
team’s first target is urinary tract infections, the most common bacterial infection
worldwide, resulting in nearly two million emergency room visits per year in the U.S.
Antibiotic treatment is usually helpful in treating urinary tract infections, however, there
are currently no diagnostic tools on the market to help doctors determine which antibiotic
to prescribe at the point-of-care, says BioAmp Diagnostics CEO Tara deBoer. “Over-
prescribing and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics are significant factors driving the
presence of bacteria that are resistant to different drugs,” she says.
Current techniques to detect antimicrobial resistance in bacteria can take up to 72 hours.
BioAmp Diagnostics aims to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the
development of innovative diagnostic tests.
“The core technology was developed by Tara and our research group as part of a
collaborative effort,” says Nicole Tarlton, co-founder and CSO. “As a company, we are
now working to define the first intended use, which will be directed towards improving
the treatment of urinary tract infections.”
DeBoer and Tarlton has performed a research study at Highland Hospital in Oakland this
past summer to validate the company’s core technology as part of their postdoctoral
research, deBoer in Bioengineering, and Tarlton in Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology.
Their first small-scale study was conducted with urine samples from Berkeley’s
University Health Services, which were predictably from younger and otherwise healthy
individuals. But samples from Highland Hospital represent a much more diverse patient
population to better evaluate the limits and potential of the test.
The journal ChemBioChem featured the work on the cover of the October edition. The
article, “An enzyme‐mediated amplification strategy enables detection of β‐lactamase
activity directly in unprocessed clinical samples for phenotypic detection of β‐lactam
resistance,” demonstrates the capacity of the team’s unique strategy to amplify the signal
of the target biomarker that confers resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics directly in patient
Next, BioAmp Diagnostics aims to expand its scope into other types of antibiotic
resistance mechanisms and bacterial infections, for example, infections in the
Another CITRIS Foundry startup, mFluiDx, aims to create the most accessible DNA
point-of-care diagnostics at the world’s lowest cost in small clinics. “Detecting DNA is
one of the fastest and most sensitive ways to detect a disease caused by bacterial and viral
infection,” says Berkeley alumnus Charlie Yeh, CEO and founder of mFluiDx.
Currently, it could take days or even weeks to get the results of DNA tests, because
primary care doctors need to send patient data to separate testing centers, where the most
sensitive DNA test methods are in use. mFluiDx’s product is designed to shorten that
time to 15 minutes and reduce the cost 100 times compared to Polymerase Chain
Reaction (PCR), the current highly sensitive molecular DNA test.
After an in-house pilot study on campus, Yeh traveled to Africa this fall to test the
technology on malaria patients. “The results were looking very good,” he says. “We got
perfect matching results with all the other standard testing techniques.” The team is now
building a complete proof-of-concept prototype.
“I truly believe that the method we are developing can decrease cost, and this type of
technology can have huge social impact,” says Yeh. “If you save time, you also save cost
and improve the patient’s quality of life.”
CITRIS Foundry startup Nosocom Solutions builds products to prevent and combat
nosocomial infections, that is, infections originating in hospitals and healthcare-
associated infections. About one in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-
associated infection on any given day in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
The team has developed a device they call “DCab,” which can automatically disinfect
near all bacteria transmitted by lead aprons and white coats in 10-15 minutes with
Research performed at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley and at UC San Diego
Medical Center last December demonstrated that DCab was able to achieve 95-100
percent disinfection of bacteria on samplings of lead aprons that carried bacteria.
“People did not know the kinds of bacteria that were growing on lead aprons and white
coats, which could be transmitted to patients and also affect healthcare professionals,”
says Naresh Sunkara, CEO and co-founder of Nosocom Solutions, also a former
postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley. “So, we have to create that awareness before being
able to sell the product – hence the longer path to market.”
For every 100 hospitalized patients, 7 in developed countries and 10 in developing
countries will acquire at least 1 healthcare-associated infection at any given time,
according to the World Health Organization.
“We are creating a new market by identifying a new solution to an old problem that
everyone overlooked,” says Sunkara.