Rheomics is one of six startups to win ~$50K in grant funding from the nonprofit Durham-based NC IDEA Foundation. Since 2006, the foundation has awarded nearly $4.2 million to 104 startups around the state. The six companies were narrowed from nine finalists, 22 semifinalists and 130 total applications for the Fall 2015 cycle. Profiles of the rest of the companies are linked below.

It’s not super clear to the average person what happens in a lab entitled 

“Computer Integrated Systems for Microscopy and Manipulation.”

But a pair of physicists and a computer scientist who met in the UNC-Chapel Hill department have found one way to translate it. They’re building a startup called Rheomics that uses intellectual property from the lab for a powerful diagnostic test for blood that they hope will prove 10 times more effective in identifying disease and infection than traditional methods.  

They’ve received almost $3 million in federal grants to perform the technical work over the last five years. But NC IDEA, though just ~$50,000, offers a different kind of validation.

NC IDEA funds businesses, not science. Winners must state how funds will move the needle in some way for their business. That’s what makes these funds so exciting for co-founder and CEO Ricky Spero. They show faith from local investors that the technology isn’t just a science experiment. It has compelling applications in the medical, pharmaceutical and research worlds.

“I was really happy with how engaged the community was in the fact that we’re trying to build a high-tech manufacturing company,” Spero says. “That enthusiasm has become vanishingly rare in the investor community.”

Spero (middle top) met his cofounders Richard Superfine (the other physicist, top left) and Russ Taylor (the computer guy, top right) when he came to UNC to do a Ph.D. program in physics in 2005. Superfine leads the lab, and a team of scientists who not only do research and publish their work but who build gear that they use to do the science. Spero calls them “toolsmiths.”

The trio licensed intellectual property for some of that work from UNC and have spent the last three years making a device that is manufacturable and high-quality. That work was completed on a device called “ASAP” or actuated surface attached posts, earlier this spring. Spero describes it as a film with tiny movable posts. It can be used to “pull stuff out of blood.” And it has multiple applications.  

They believe they can target FDA-regulated industries like hospitals, helping to prevent or early diagnose hospital-acquired illnesses, and unregulated industries like pharmaceutical or biotechnology research. The NC IDEA grant will be used to get the Rheomics team in front of those potential customers. They’ll attend conferences and hopefully get the chance to present at those events.

Time at Groundwork Labs this fall has helped with the business planning, Spero says. 

Few medical device companies participate in the program, but Spero says he’s found value in the focus on customers.

“John does a really god job of making sure that his companies get in front of their customers. He asks ‘What have you learned? How have you validated? Is this your opinion or is this real?” Spero says. “It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, that is a great question to get asked and they do a really good job of it.”