(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth article in a five-part series focused on various aspects of Tennessee’s statewide mentor network that currently supports start-ups in two key sectors – life sciences and energy.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We’re diagnosing cancer at higher rates, but the pathologist is not always certain,” Richard Caprioli, Founder of Frontier Diagnostics, says. “If they’re not sure, you frequently get chemotherapy.”
Caprioli and Jeremy Norris, the company’s President, think that picture of less than certainty needs to change, so they launched Frontier Diagnostics based on technology developed by Caprioli. It’s a proprietary platform that combines the spatial information of microscopy (mass spectrometry) with the benefits of molecular testing to bring a much-needed capability to anatomic pathology.
“What we’ve invented is a molecular microscope,” Caprioli says of the technology that the Nashville-based company is commercializing. Incorporated in 2014, Frontier Diagnostics is one of the latest graduates of the “Life Science Network,” a joint undertaking between Launch Tennessee and Life Science Tennessee (LST) to help start-ups in the sector accelerate their growth.
Caprioli holds the Stanford Moore Chair in Biochemistry and is also Director of the Mass Spectrometry Research Center at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine. He joined Vanderbilt in 1998. Norris, once a part of the team at Knoxville’s Protein Discovery, was one of Caprioli’s doctoral students.
During our recent teknovation.biz interview with them, it was clear that they had worked together for a number of years and were on the same page. In fact, the long-time Vanderbilt researcher said that he would not have started the company without Norris’ involvement.
“Pathologists don’t have the right tools right now,” Caprioli said repeatedly in a variety of ways during our interview. “They can only look at images. We add a molecular dimension to that analysis.”
Why is that important?
“There’s no subjectivity anymore,” Caprioli says of the results the pathologist provides using the Frontier Diagnostics platform. They have already involved several hundred patients in a trial to determine if the growth on their skin is a nevus (benign) or metastatic cancer.
“We can tell them exactly what it is,” he explains. “A solid diagnosis would make a significant impact on healthcare in so many ways.”
Like many tech-based start-ups today, Frontier Diagnostics is incorporating artificial intelligence into its platform to aid pathologists in their diagnosis.
Norris says the company wants to conduct several hundred more tests in the next 12 months followed by a clinical study that shows “we can perform” and also provide answers to these questions: does it help the patient and how do we obtain reimbursement for it?
“Our shortest path to market is opening our own CLIA lab,” he adds, referencing labs approved under federal legislation passed 30 years ago. “We intend to either open our own or partner with someone we trust.”
As far as the “Life Science Network,” Caprioli says, “I’d give them an A+. They particularly worked with me to get the science out of the pitch.” Norris added that “it created a network around our company that was customized for us.”
Frontier Diagnostics has been funded mainly by angels up to now. Obviously, there’s a more significant fundraising effort in the future for a product and a cause for which both individuals are so passionate.
“Although the technology brings great benefits to biological and medical research, if we can’t get this technology across the translational bridge and into the clinic to help people, we will have failed in one vital aspect of our mission,” Caprioli says.
NEXT: A look at the newest start-up in the “Energy Mentor Network.”