BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — BEVERLY — “Hydrogels in space.”
That was the cryptic text message Quad Technologies co-founder Brian Plouffe received from co-founder Sean Kevlahan at the end of last month.
Plouffe, who was flying back from a conference in Orlando, knew exactly what it meant: The fledgling medical device company would get to fly an experiment involving its microbeads aboard the International Space Station.
Kevlahan had just accepted an award as part of the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator competition on Oct. 30, the day the Red Sox won the World Series. To the company’s four founders, including Plouffe and Kevlahan, this message was the equivalent of slugger David Ortiz hitting a home run into orbit.
Quad’s grant from the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space will allow the company to study the effects of microgravity in the manufacturing of its microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny magnetic, coated beads that are used in medical research. The ones that Quad is producing can be used to isolate stem cells found in blood — stem cells that were only discovered in 2008.
Such stem cells are difficult to harvest out of blood. The ability to isolate cells is a key step in laboratory and clinical research, however.
The company says its magnetic microbeads, called QuickBeads, will enable scientists to isolate target cells from a large mix of other cells. The very small magnetic beads coated with the company’s chemistry can bind with stem cells outside the body. A magnet can be used to separate the stem cells. Then the microbeads can be dissolved without harming the cell.
Once the stem cells are separated, they can aid in research against a host of diseases.
While magnetic beads have been used in cell separation before, Kevlahan says the current processes are highly toxic to cells.
”With our chemistry that we patented, and that we coat these magnetic particles with, we give a way to decouple the stem cell from the magnetic bead when they are post-processed — without killing the stem cells,” Kevlahan said.
So, why is being in space so important to Quad?
”We developed this coating technology that is droplet-based, and essentially, we coat small magnetic particles,” Kevlahan said.
”That coating process is highly dependent on gravity. And, so, we want to get a better distribution of the size of those droplets on beads. So, by eliminating or making gravity very small, you get a better mathematical model, which you can tailor back on earth for a manufacturing process.”
That lack of gravity can be found, of course, in space.
To get into space, Quad won one of eight grants through the Boston-based MassChallenge Startup Accelerator, which runs an annual competition for early-stage companies. While Quad did not win the challenge, they won the sidecar prize of $45,000 and the all-expenses-paid trip to space.
”It’s going to eliminate a huge amount of the research we have to do here,” Plouffe said, “and it’s just going to put a lot of the cost burden on CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science in Space) instead of us, which is nice.”
The grant covers the direct costs for Quad to develop and engineer its platform for space flight and any subsequent analysis. CASIS will pay the cost to transport the payload to and from the space station and the cost of the space scientists on board. For the eight projects, this represents an in-kind contribution of more than $7 million.
That’s all pretty exciting for this new business, which is less than 2 years old. Kevlahan, 26, and Plouffe, 32, both of whom have PhDs from Northeastern University, founded the company with two other partners in February 2012. They have two full-time employees.
In March 2013, they joined North Shore InnoVentures at the Cummings Center in Beverly, a technology business incubator that nurtures young cleantech and life-science companies. InnoVentures gives start-ups reduced rates on office and lab space. Mentors help advise the new companies.
”Having one of our client companies conducting manufacturing research on the International Space Station is certainly a first for NSIV,” said its CEO Martha Farmer. “This is a reflection of the caliber of companies we have in our incubator and the future potential they have in the marketplace.”
Plouffe’s doctorate is in chemical engineering, and his doctoral project was focused on developing new tools based on magnetic cell separation.
”I am kind of the magnetic mind behind the technology,” he said. He has worked extensively with the nanotechnology involved in the magnetic beads and manipulating cells using magnetic beads.
The company has received seed funding from so-called angel investors and friends and family.
So, when might the small company expand and graduate from InnoVentures?
Kevlahan said a roll-out of the company’s cell separation kit is expected sometime late in 2014. This will dovetail with the work to get their experiment on board the space station. The company will probably look to go out on its own and find more space, in the form of office space, in about a year.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.