Tammi Thomas

Dr. Mustafa Al-Adhami knew the severity of the sepsis problem: 1.7 million Americans are evaluated for sepsis every year, and too many have died while waiting for the correct antibiotic. His solution was to develop a platform to determine antibiotic sensitivity in one hour, giving doctors and patients precious time and a life-saving tool through his new venture, Astek Diagnostics Inc. (Astek).

While the concept of Astek was conceived in a university lab space, a crucial next step was bringing it to the commercial marketplace. Al-Adhami, who is affiliated with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), found the ideal partner in the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII). MII is a program administered by the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO), a public-private entity tasked with investing in Maryland tech companies and helping them grow.

TEDCO developed MII as a partnership between the state of Maryland and five Maryland academic research institutions: Johns Hopkins University; Morgan State University; University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and the University of Maryland, College Park. The program’s mission is to accelerate promising technologies with significant commercial potential to market, while also leveraging each partner university’s strengths.

What did that partnership look like for Astek? In addition to guidance and mentoring through MII, Astek received $165,000 in grants from the MII Technology Assessment Phase to de-risk the technology, followed by a $150,000 investment through MII’s Company Formation Phase in 2020. The following year Astek was accepted to participate in the highly competitive startup accelerator, Y Combinator (YC), which has a 3% acceptance rate. Previous Y Combinator investments include Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit and Instacart.

The MII model and leadership

“We’re in the business of taking innovative solutions from bench to bedside or workplace, and Astek’s journey is an exciting example of that,” said Dr. Arti Santhanam, executive director of MII. “This past year has seen a record-breaking number of applications across various industry sectors for new innovative technologies, and MII is committed to growing our portfolio companies and advancing their technologies to the next level.”

Since its creation in 2012, MII has supported 119 successful, scalable start-up tech companies in Maryland, as demonstrated by their ability to attract follow-on funding. Over the past nine years, MII companies have successfully de-risked technology and attracted over $570 million in follow-on funding. Angel investors and venture capitalists account for 84% of this funding. The state of Maryland further benefits with the creation of new full-time jobs for highly skilled tech employees, with salaries averaging $100,000.

Santhanam is well-suited to lead MII into its 10th year; her extensive experience in the STEM space includes working with state, federal and commercial partnerships to address global health issues. She’s also committed to a pilot program that expands MII partners to include Bowie State University and Frostburg University, noting that the addition of the two community anchor institutions will further expand and build on the state’s robust entrepreneurial culture.

The MII program includes two elements: a technology assessment, which offers grants of up to $115,000 for technology validation and market assessment, and a company formation grant for commercial launches of up to $150,000.

Most recently the company formation phase of MII invested $150,000 each in 12 Maryland companies. Examples include Bel Air-based Geothermal Technologies, a Johns Hopkins University spinout, which is developing the technology to provide clean, economically competitive energy, as well as Haystack Solutions, a University of Maryland, College Park spinout. Led by CEO Doug Britton, Haystack Solutions is developing a revolutionary assessment for cybersecurity talent identification and human capital optimization. Britton addressed the key role filled by MII for his fledging enterprise.

“MII fills a critical gap in the early-stage funding space that really changes the odds of a technology surviving the transition from a nurturing university environment to the violent winds of unmitigated commerce,” said Britton. “The MII diligence process during the company formation stage can be parlayed into additional private investment, because other investors will get confidence from the rigorous analysis and stamp of approval.”

Astek’s evolution

As for Al-Adhami’s Astek startup, the proof-of-concept prototype of the Astek Diagnostic platform has been verified using commercial blood and archived clinical samples. For patients suspected of sepsis or septic shock, rapid initiation of the correct antibiotic therapy is crucial: Every hour of delay increases mortality by 7-8 percent. The platform, called Eugris, is projected to launch in the market in 2023. It’s not a moment too soon for this lifesaving tool, the product of innovative thinking, hard work, collaboration, and timely investments.

“The MII program has given our impactful technology an opportunity to be in the hands of doctors,” said Al-Adhami, CEO of Astek Diagnostics Inc. “It helped transform me from an engineer with an idea into a founder.”

According to Al-Adhami, Astek just closed a $500,000 angel round and received $355,000 in grants.

A full list of funded companies can be viewed on the MII website. Visit TEDCO’s YouTube Channel to view an MII highlight video.

Source: Maryland Inno