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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

July 18, 2013 at 4:04 PM

Human cells on a chip and more: A virtual tour of UW startup showcase

“It’s important that what goes on at a university is available to make lives better,” University of Washington President Michael Young said today at a press conference marking progress in the school’s commercialization program.

That includes the lives of lab animals, who may benefit more than most from one venture highlighted at the event.


Called Nortis, it’s a startup company working out of the year-old incubation center at Fluke Hall on campus operated by the school’s C4C commercialization program.

Nortis is developing a “body on a chip” system that uses live human cells sustained on a special slide (pictured above) for assessing the effects of drugs, vaccines, cosmetics and chemical weapons. The idea is to use real human cells for testing, rather than lab animals. It’s intended to be more precise, efficient and cost-effective, not to mention humane.

Chief Executive Thomas Neumann said the current approach uses 350,000 animals to test a single drug. Lab animals can also cost up to $2,000 apiece, compared with the $60 or so for a Nortis chip.

Human cells have been kept alive up to six weeks in the chips, which include a growth medium and attach to a device that circulates fluid to the cells.

Nortis was planning to launch its assay system next year, but demand is so great that it already has begun offering it to research groups. So far most of its customers are Seattle-based organizations such as the Gates Foundation and PATH.

The company has about $900,000 in angel investor funding, plus $2.9 million in grants, including a new grant from the National Cancer Institute to compare the performance of the Nortis system with animal testing.

Neumann said the company is now mulling whether to enter a strategic partnership with a big pharmaceutical company.

Nortis is unusual among the companies working at the C4C facility. It’s actually a second-generation spinoff; it was spun out of VisionGate, another company that was built around technology developed at the UW.

So far about 250 companies have been been spun out of the school, including 17 in the last fiscal year. That’s about double the pace over the last 10 year, according to Linden Rhoads, vice provost for C4C.

A year ago Young casually mentioned at the C4C facility dedication that he’d like to see twice as many startups over the next three years. Instead that goal was reached within a year, putting the UW among the top five schools nationally generating startups.

“Thirty-four next year — we’re very excited,” he quipped at today’s press conference.

That may be within reach. Rhoads said 80 other potential startups based on UW research are now in the “current pipeline.” Young said the school is now the most active nationally in licensing its technology, with 215 license and option agreements executed over the last year.

For a virtual walk-through of the event, here are the presentation boards Nortis and other startups displayed at C4C today.

Comments | Topics: biotechnology, Public policy, research


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