By Rob Mitchum // January 21, 2016
The University of Chicago Innovation Fund has been kind to the Computation Institute. One year ago, Parallel.works, led by CI Senior Fellow Mike Wilde, received funding from the UChicago-backed initiative to support entrepreneurship on campus. Last summer, the Array of Thingsproject kept the streak alive, receiving $150,000 to begin manufacturing its sensor nodes. But for the fall round of the Innovation Fund, we doubled down with two winning startups from CI researchers: Navipoint Genomics and Praedictus Climate Solutions.
In both cases, the companies build upon established CI projects, finding a commercial angle to deepen impact and improve sustainability. Navipoint, led by Paul Davé, Ravi Madduri, Dina Sulakhe, and Alex Rodriguez, expands the cloud-based genomic analysis capabilities of Globus Genomics to clinical testing. Praedictus, led by Joshua Elliott, David Kelly, and Ian Foster, seeks to apply climate and agriculture modeling techniques developed at the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP) to applications for financial and insurance markets, as well as farms, governments, and other organizations.
For Navipoint, the $175,000 Innovation Fund investment will help add new clinically-focused features to Globus Genomics, which was originally designed to support genomics research. As the cost of genomic sequencing drops and scientists increasingly reveal the influence of genetics on disease and treatment, more and more medical providers are looking for technical support in bringing advanced genomics to patients.
“With Globus Genomics, we’ve had interest from health care providers, in terms of using the platform for clinical diagnosis and treatment,” said Madduri, a CI Senior Fellow. “Potentially, someday a provider can sequence an individual or a collection of individuals, figure out any actionable variants in their data, and find drugs or clinical trials that person is eligible for based on genetics markup.”
Spinning off Navipoint as a commercial entity will allow the researchers to attain the special certifications needed for clinical uses and find the right customer base for the platform. Through the Innovation Fund application process and the I-Corps program, the team determined that their primary target should be diagnostics providers instead of hospitals and other providers, Madduri said.
“It’s a pretty huge and growing market, as the genetic basis for more and more diseases are discovered,” Madduri said. “The I-Corps program helped us realize that our product is a better match for that domain. So we ended up changing our primary customer to diagnostic providers from health care providers.”
Praedictus Climate Solutions also seeks to expand tools designed for researchers to new audiences. With RDCEP, Elliott, Kelly, and Foster have developed several projects that make it easier for using climate data and simulation results to drive computational forecasts of agriculture. For example, Elliott has simulated how a “Dust Bowl”-level drought would affect worldwide crop production, prices, and food supply.
The new startup will create versions of these tools and forecasts for commodities markets, which trade on the price of agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans. Currently, commodities traders base their decisions on mostly qualitative reports on weather and other relevant information, but Elliott believes that his software technology could introduce more quantitative forecasts for investors. Similar reports might also improve forecasting and planning for food and farm service companies, governments and NGOs.
“We’re going to leverage multiple terabytes of forecasts from weather organizations around the world,” said Elliott, a CI Fellow, “using them to run our agricultural models and produce real-time data products for the industry.”
With $125,000 from the Innovation Fund, Praedictus will develop a prototype, collect user feedback, and determine the best delivery method for their products. Both teams credited the guidance of the CIE in making the leap from academic research to commercialization and determining the steps they needed to successfully launch a business.
“It was an interesting exercise,” Madduri said. “We were forced to think about how data companies are launched, finding a market, creating a product, and deciding what you want to do with it.”
For more on the innovation fund, visit https://cie.uchicago.edu/innovation-fund