*This article is from the Santa Barbara Noozhawk*
[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series on the impact of technology on medicine in Santa Barbara County. Click here for related stories.]
The earlier you can detect cancer or heart disease and other ailments, the better.
That was the way Scott Ferguson and two fellow UC Santa Barbara graduate students approached a scientific problem four years ago, and the solution they came up with helped launch them into an ever-changing medical technology field.
A huge chunk of the health-care world uses antibody technology to detect diseases or issues in patients, with an antibody helping to identify and neutralize pathogens like bacteria and viruses before they can spread.
Ferguson and his classmates, Qiang (Jackson) Gong and Jinpeng (JP) Wang, formed Aptitude Medical Systems to create their own synthetic version of molecules that could better do the trick at a fraction of the cost.
“Basically we’re trying to tackle some key needs in healthcare at a really fundamental level,” said Ferguson, who’s CEO of the Santa Barbara-based startup.
“If you’re trying to detect certain diseases, you need to interact with molecules. There are some key limitations with antibodies that make it difficult for them to detect certain (bio) markers. Special molecules we create can detect certain targets.”
The research was solid, and the business plan Aptitude Medical put together for the startup competition at the UCSB Technology Management Program New Venture Competition was thorough enough to earn Ferguson’s team best business plan and most fundable venture.
A short time later, Aptitude Medical incorporated as a company to develop real-time detection technology, joining a slew of other tech startups flowing from the university’s popular TMP program.
TMP, which was created in 1998, is known for its annual New Venture Competition that allows students from any major to present venture ideas to compete for cash prizes.
The program this year also began offering its MBA-like degree to foster entrepreneurialism and management training.
Because TMP is open to any student — not just those interested in business — UCSB is seeing unique, gutsy approaches to certain issues, said Robin Campbell, a former executive at Amgen with 25 years of pharmaceutical and biotechnology experience and a sometimes TMP teacher and student mentor.
Over the past 10 years, Campbell said he’s spied a trend of more med-tech companies coming out of UCSB.
“All these life science programs take a while,” said Campbell, who sits on Aptitude Medical’s advisory board.
“You do need people willing to take the risk. How do we turn this into a real product? That’s where the TMP program has come in. The things that are happening in healthcare in general are gong to drive a number of innovations.”
People are living longer than they used to, with an average U.S. life expectancy of 79 years old, meaning they have more time to develop diseases of aging.
It’s no surprise then, Campbell said, that some 70-80 percent of health-care costs are driven by chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Companies such as Aptitude Medical are capitalizing on the desire for early detection of those ailments.
Another TMP winner, ActiveLife Scientific, Inc., chose a similar vein, making medical instruments to test the quality of people’s bones and tissues to develop better treatments and results.
The 2007 winner has stayed in Santa Barbara and is now branching into the veterinary medicine space, especially for horses, according to co-founder and CEO Davis Brimer.
In 2013, Asta Fluidic Technologies, Inc. took home top TMP honors for a non-invasive technology aiming to better diagnose fetomaternal hemorrhage (FMH) during pregnancy.
The most famous success out of TMP’s startup contest falls into the same med-tech category withInogen, which was founded locally in 2001 by three UCSB students but has since gone public as a company developing lightweight and travel-safe portable oxygen concentrators.
A recent surge in Santa Barbara-area startups has led to an influx in the number of incubator spaces to help them thrive, including the Goleta Entrepreneurial Magnet, which is a partnership between UCSB, the city of Goleta and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“The good thing about med tech companies is that even though they’re risky, they’re great jobs,” Campbell said.
“They build a great-paying economic climate. Places like Santa Barbara really like these kinds of companies. It’s great for the whole area. The more the entire area can embrace these small companies, the more that will want to start here.”
Aptitude Medical has grown to 10 employees and is working with large diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies to get synthetic molecules approved.
Ferguson said the company is also using grant funds to develop a device that would help diabetes patients manage conditions by providing real-time glucose levels, since insulin injections vary from person to person.
They hope to commercialize products by 2018, ever thankful to have attended a university that encouraged interdisciplinary research.
“I think we’re really thrilled to have been supported by the local entrepreneurial environment,” Ferguson said.
“Things are going pretty well. A lot of people really believe in us, and we do, too.”