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U of T alum-led projects named finalists in 2018 Sci Innovation Competition

Talking entrepreneurship and innovation with the founders of AddEm Labs and Mediphage Bioceuticals
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Recently, 20 finalists were announced for The Second China (Shenzhen) Innovation & Entrepreneurship International Competition, Toronto Division — two of which include U of T alumni.

The Varsity had the chance to speak with Dr. Roderick Slavcev, the founder and CEO of Mediphage Bioceuticals, and AddEm Labs co-founders Gowtham Ramachandran and Varun Perumal.

AddEm Labs

AddEm Labs is an innovative start-up that allows individuals to use already-owned machines and smart devices to instantly develop Printed Circuit Boards (PCB). PCBs are the core of any electronic device and look like green boards with copper etched on them. The company’s goal is to ease the process of hardware manufacturing in terms of cost and time.

Currently, the process to develop circuit boards costs hundreds of dollars and can take up to several months. For example, an individual interested in making their own computer and developing their own PCB would first design the PCB and then outsource its development to solder and cast the circuit board. This process makes it difficult for individuals to amend their design once it has already been sent out.

CEO and Rotman MBA candidate Gowtham Ramachandran and CTO and Department of Computer Science PhD student Varun Perumal found that this process was cumbersome. This led them to found AddEm Labs. In fact, AddEm Labs started out as Perumal’s master’s thesis.

The pair found that PCBs could be made using 3D printers. However, 3D printers are expensive and come with their own technical issues. Instead, Ramachandran and Perumal found that focusing their innovation on materials, rather than machines, was the best option for developing better PCBs.

Their answer to a better material was smart film — which they liken to a polaroid film — that can form into a PCB in mere minutes.

“We’ve basically built a smart material that reacts to visible light, and so when you place our film on the screen, there’s a photochemical reaction that happens from the light from the screen and the pattern gets etched onto our film,” said Ramachandran. “We’re trying to commercialize the film now.”

The venture is unique in that its goal is to enable anyone, with or without hardware skills, to build PCBs. In the future, the pair hopes to remove soldering from the process of hardware development and enable individuals to easily develop multi-layer PCBs.

The company is currently looking to hire interns and employees with a background in materials science or process engineering domains, specifically photopolymer chemistry.

In April 2018, AddEm Labs will compete among 10 other companies in the ‘Industrial Finals’ and ‘Grande Finals’ in Shenzhen, China.

Mediphage Bioceuticals

Mediphage Bioceuticals uses patented ministring DNA — mini sections of linear covalently closed DNA vectors — and manipulates them for effective gene therapy. In essence, topoisomerases are enzymes that dictate the supercoiling of DNA, or when the DNA helix is wound too much or too little, and control torsional strain by cleaving the DNA strands.

Conversely, topoisomerase inhibitors are chemical compounds that induce strand breaks. Topoisomerase inhibitors have been used as treatments for cancer and can effectively inhibit DNA replication of cancer cells.

Mediphage Bioceutials builds on this concept by encoding certain mutant topoisomerase alleles to eliminate the additional need for toxic topoisomerases in nonviral gene therapy using DNA ministrings. This is a more effective alternative because traditional circular vectors can impact expression and cause off-target side effects.

“The concept is revolutionary and takes gene therapy to a new level of safe, personalized genetic medicine,” wrote Slavcev, CEO and Founder of Mediphage Bioceuticals and U of T alum.

“We are now working on a 2nd generation that will further improve production efficiency, provide the same elements of maximal safety and efficacy, [and] be able to cross the blood brain barrier,” said Slavcev.

Challenges along the way

According to Perumal, some of the biggest challenges with AddEm Labs’ PCB development have included taking the product from its prototype stage to develop it into a product that will work consistently each time it is used and to formulate a product that appeals to a wide audience.

Slavcev noted that one of the challenges of translational research is obtaining funding for science. “While Canada [spends] an enormous amount on science, the return in terms of new health technology is rather poor,” said Slavcev.

Yet Slavcev finds translational research highly rewarding. “It has been an amazing journey and while I’m too old to hold an epinephrine level like this for too long, my team is not and whatever happens, I will not regret the process and experience,” said Slavcev.

Scientific entrepreneurship, said Slavcev, means “stepping out of your comfort zone, doing the work, being open to criticism and advice and being driven by a passionate vision of where you intend to provide value.”