Startup Instant NanoBiosensors (INB) has been selected as one of ten teams to participate in Merck’s 2020 accelerator program. Chosen from a pool of over 600 applicants from around the world, INB is the only successful startup from Asia.

The 3-month program, which runs only once a year and takes place in Darmstadt, Germany, has a clear goal: offering startups the opportunity to partner with Merck. The teams receive funding of up to €50,000 as well as mentoring from Merck’s Senior Management, and tailored coaching sessions from a network of 50,000 experts and Merck Accelerator alumni.

With more accelerator programs than you can shake a stick at, Tony Chung, CEO and Co-Founder of INB explains, “we didn’t want to just join any accelerator and become another KPI”. Catching the eye with their light sensing nanobiosensor technology, gaining admittance to Merck’s exclusive accelerator program was about putting INB on the global stage.

FOPPR

Founded in 2016 as a spin-off from a research project supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in Taiwan, INB have developed a ‘benchtop’ biomarker analyzer to enable better monitoring of the patient journey after treatment.

As populations continue to grow and put pressure on the health care system, INB want to reduce the time required for patients to attain their results and receive appropriate care. In addition, they hope that by facilitating continued research into biomarkers, they can limit the need for invasive medical procedures for patient monitoring.

Biomarkers found in biological material such as blood, urine and tissue are often used in diagnostics. They’re easily measured in a clinical laboratory in a hospital or in the community by a simple blood test and can cost less than medical imaging. Due to the prevalence of lifestyle and infectious diseases, demand for screening, early detection and management of multiple chronic conditions are fuelling the growth of the point-of-care testing market.

Tony Chung

Tony Chung with the Light-Sensing POCT INB D1

Chung explains that there are a variety of instruments which are available to cater for a broad spectrum of needs. But due to the complexity involved in analysing for a biomarker, a technician is often required, and it can take hours to finish a single sample. “Whether a technician is preparing a sample for manual or automated testing, there are still many, many steps they must complete before conducting a test. It only takes a person 3 steps to use our instrument”.

With the upcoming launch of their Light-Sensing POCT INB D1, INB believe they can reach the sensitivity of diagnostic equipment used in top laboratories, coupled with the miniaturization of the instrument to facilitate on-site testing and produce results in under 15 minutes.

“When someone has to attend a hospital appoint for a scan or to have a blood test, they want to receive their results fast but currently it can take days or even weeks”, said Chung. With results in 5-15 minutes, physicians receive real-time, objective information to modify drug strategies immediately rather than several weeks later.

The miniaturization of the instrument, along with the acceleration of the test, is due to utilising the newly developed fiber optic particle plasmon resonance (FOPPR) technology. First developed by INB co-founder Prof. Lai-Kwan Chau, INB has developed a biosensor using FOPPR technology which can detect specific biomolecules on the surface of optical fiber.

FOPPR

(Source: Instant NanoBiosensors)

“Everybody uses conventional methods – high energy input and ultra-sensitivity to capture the signal – we use a different methodology. We use optical fiber as a sensor and achieve a similar performance as large instruments but in a much smaller device”.

The FOPPR sensor is based on an optical fiber which has been modified using gold nanoparticles. The gold nanoparticle surface has been modified by a mixed self-assembled monolayer (SAM) for further conjugation of antibody and minimization of nonspecific adsorption. Upon binding of an antigen to an immobilized antibody on the gold nanoparticle surface, the absorbance of the gold nanoparticle layer on the optical fiber changes and the signal change is enhanced through multiple total internal reflections along the optical fiber.

Based on FOPPR technology, the Light-Sensing POCT is a label-free, real- time (5~15mins/detection) and ultra-sensitive platform which only requires a single drop of blood.

One drop of blood

While attending a startup event in Silicon Valley, the team from INB became very popular as attendees immediately equated their message to that of a recently disgraced health tech company.

Images such as this were commonly used by Theranos during their marketing campaigns

Feeling a little nervous about their trip to Silicon Valley, Chung and his team developed a new banner which displayed ‘1 drop of blood, 3 step-application and 5 minutes to result’. Once they had set up their booth, the team found that they were inundated by attendees taking pictures, with some even posing next to their new banner.

“One girl even gave me her phone so I could take a picture of her with the banner”, says Chung.

Unbeknownst to the startup from Taiwan, they had stumbled onto Theranos’ marketing slogan. Clearly, people had drawn a comparison between INB and the once celebrated Theranos, now infamous for its false claims to have devised blood tests that only needed very small amounts of blood.

While an accident, this ‘anti-advertising’ incident helped spread the word. “It’s very interesting, we’re not that famous so I said, ‘let me describe to you what we do and how we’re different to Theranos’ and we got very positive feedback”, says Chung.

With over 30 global patents and 10 clinical tests to prove the authenticity of their solution, Chung isn’t concerned with the comparison. “Theranos only got one publication but we have so many technical publications and I invite people to have a look and see that we’re completely different”.