A Eugene startup that has invented technology used in drug discovery and environmental testing recently raised $1 million in an investment round to help support its growth.
NemaMetrix, a spin-out of University of Oregon research, has developed a portable device that can be used to quickly test the effects of drugs or environmental toxins on the C. elegans worm — a small, clear nematode widely used as a stand-in for humans in human disease research
Researchers use the worms to study the effects of drugs on aging, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and many other conditions.
The worms have a two-week lifespan, and can be a faster, cheaper alternative to lab tests involving mice or rats.
“With our ScreenChip system, any researcher can start to understand the effects a potential drug has on a living animal within a few hours,” said Matt Beaudet, NemaMetrix’s chief executive.
NemaMetrix’s technology makes nematodes more accessible to more researchers, potentially lowering the cost and speeding the pace of drug discovery, he said.
The ScreenChip device is about the size of a USB drive, Beaudet said.
It connects to other equipment that uses microfluidics — similar to a circuit board to move liquids around, instead of electricity — to move the liquid and the nematodes. The equipment takes readings on the worms and displays the information in electrical readouts similar to electrocardiogram tests on humans.
“One of the big breakthroughs for us is we make that incredible, powerful animal easy for all researchers, not just researchers who were trained in nematodes,”
The average cost to bring one drug to market is $1 billion, he said. Taking into account the failure rate, that figure soars to $3 billion per drug, Beaudet said.
“Our main goal is to reduce the amount of failures and maybe catch some of the (drugs) that they didn’t even think were possible,” and help them to be successful, he said.
Cascade Angels Fund, based in Central Oregon, invested $150,000 in NemaMetrix and led the $1 million investment round. Other investors include Portland Seed Fund, Oregon State Venture Fund, TiE Oregon, Oregon BEST and several private investors.
NemaMetrix plans to use the $1 million in funding to further develop its technology and to add customers and hire employees.
NemaMetrix’s main market is drug discovery, but its ScreenChip technology also is being used to test environmental toxins.
Last year, a customer wanted to use NemaMetrix’s technology to test thousands of water samples in Argentina, from agricultural field runoff to drinking fountains in schools, Beaudet said.
At about the same time, Beaudet met representatives from Oregon BEST, an Oregon nonprofit that supports cleantech startups with funding and other resources.
“It’s one of the nicest things we’ve been finding with being in Oregon — there are a lot of resources that are trying to help companies make … connections,” he said.
No changes are needed to the ScreenChip device for environmental testing, Beaudet said, but it has required some changes so that testers with a high-school education level can run the test in the field instead of bringing it to a lab, he said.
“Our technology took a technique that usually required eight years of education and brought it to a level that someone with a bachelor’s degree can use,” Beaudet said. Now, “we’re aiming to bring it down to a level that somebody with a high school diploma could use.”
NemaMetrix has 10 employees, up from four at the end of last year, Beaudet said. Those figures don’t include the company’s three co-founders — Beaudet and University of Oregon biology professors Shawn Lockery and Janis Weeks, who launched the company in 2011.
“Our longer-term goal is to get to 50 employees in the next few years,” Beaudet said. “At the moment, we’re on track for that.”
NemaMetrix leases 1,000 square feet in the Fertilab Thinkubator business incubator in downtown Eugene.
The company had hoped to stay in Fertilab through at least the middle of 2017, but its rapid growth may force it to leave the incubator for a larger home, Beaudet said.