Lever Western Mass Healthtech challenge
Honors and Awards

IALS Startups Win Top Prizes at Lever’s Western Massachusetts Health Tech Challenge

Prizewinning technologies could reduce the overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics; screen for ovarian cancer

Startup companies’ grounding-breaking health technologies launched from research at UMass Amherst won innovation grant funding at the Lever Western Massachusetts Health Tech Challenge hosted by the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) on March 3. 

Receiving the top prize of $50,000 from an expert panel of judges was Latde Diagnostics, which is developing a rapid, low-cost test to determine which specific antibiotic will be effective in a patient with sepsis, a life-threatening blood-borne infection.  

A majority of healthcare providers do not have rapid diagnostic tests for sepsis patients because they are prohibitively expensive, so as a result patients are given broad spectrum antibiotics, which can take three to five days to reveal which drug is effective, said Latde co-founder and CEO Emily Melzer in her pitch to the judges.  

Melzer, who received her Ph.D. from UMass Amherst, was a Ph.D. student in the lab of associate professor of microbiology M. Sloan Siegrist when they submitted their early-stage research for a Manning/IALS Innovation Award, one of many sources of support they found at UMass. 

During her pitch to the judges, Melzer said an inexpensive, rapid test could result in a 66% reduction in the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics in 5 million patients a year, potentially saving 500,000 lives. 

“This is really important to help us move to the next stage and closer to saving lives,” Melzer said after winning. 

Receiving $25,000 in funding was Quaesar Therapeutics, which is developing a non-invasive blood test that can screen for ovarian cancer significantly earlier than current clinical standards. Presenting the technology to the judges was Anujan Ramesh, CEO and co-founder of the company and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering. 

“This is huge. We really need money to make the idea happen, [and] we believe in the idea,” Ramesh said after receiving the award. 

"Over the last five to six years IALS has provided translational seed grants, startup laboratory spaces, core equipment facilities, startup educational ‘boot camps,’ grant writing help and individualized venture mentoring,” said Peter Reinhart, founding director of IALS. “It is very gratifying to see that this innovation and entrepreneurship support infrastructure is now enabling the growth of exciting startup companies.” 

Health Tech Challenge runners up were MacFarlane Medical, an improved insulin delivery port developed by Connor MacFarlane, a senior in chemical engineering; Brainify, a high-dose, noninvasive brain stimulator to reduce stroke recovery time created by Gottfried Schlaug, UMass Amherst research professor in biomedical engineering, and Anant Shinde, a former UMass Amherst biomedical engineering senior postdoctoral researcher; and TBD Medical, a pioneering prostate cancer diagnostic technology led by UMass Amherst assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering Govind Srimathveeravalli.  

All five of the finalist companies have received support from the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center’s (MLSC) most significant capital investment. Melzer, Ramesh, MacFarlane and Shinde have participated in I-Corps@UMass Amherst training. 

The Challenge is funded in part by MLSC, an economic development investment agency dedicated to supporting the growth and development of the life sciences throughout the state. Lever and MLSC have partnered since 2016, with the Western Massachusetts Health Tech Challenge representing the seventh in a collaborative series of acceleration programs. 

MLSC CEO Kenn Turner awarded the grants, noting the importance of building life science ventures in western Massachusetts. State Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao opened the session by outlining the importance of innovation as a vehicle for economic vibrancy and growth in all areas of the commonwealth, and Reinhart provided welcoming remarks.