You may be familiar with influenza, as you’ve likely suffered through it once or twice, but you may not know just how likely it is to get a false negative back from the swab test done at the doctor’s office. Therefore, early detection of a virus is crucial for the diagnosis and treatment of human infectious diseases. 

Recent TechCelerator graduate—and winner of the $10,000 prize—Virolock Technologies may hold the key to a process that greatly improves the detection of viruses causing infectious diseases, like influenza, herpes, Zika Virus, Ebola, and hepatitis C, etc. 

The ViroLock Technologies team includes two Penn State faculty researchers (Mauricio Terrones and Siyang Zheng) and two post-doctoral researchers (Yin-Ting Yeh (Tim) and Nestor Perea Lopez).

Together, they have developed a portable technology for concentrating clinical samples and improving detection sensitivity of conventional virus detection methods, for example polymerase chain reaction (PCR). They are integrating their technology into a cartridge that is compatible with commercialized PCR systems. Using a disposable cartridge, the Virolock cartridge “traps” the virus particles, thereby obtaining a much more concentrated sample that will result in quicker and more sensitive virus detection.

“This technology speeds up vaccine development and virus discovery , because our technology captures virus by size without requiring any antibody,” Yin-Ting said. “We can manufacture custom-made cartridges to target specific viruses.”

The team is currently publishing the results of experimentation focused on animal and plant viruses, which has garnered commercial interest from the USDA. These early data will also provide the foundation for the inventors to start a company based on their findings. 

The group recently received a $75,000 award from Penn State’s Fund for Innovation, which along with its $10,000 TechCelerator prize, will go toward commercialization, and they are preparing to file for commercially focused grants from federal funding agencies.

So far, team members estimate they’ve built nearly 500 cartridges and have created a lab-scale manufacturing process that yields about 75% working prototypes. 

“We are trying to demonstrate that we can scale up in building these devices,” Terrones said. 

That’s been the tricky part for a group of scientists who haven’t had as much experience in the field of marketing their own ideas. The TechCelerator program helped the team focus on its business model and obtain a base of understanding for what steps to take in moving out of their university labs and progressing toward company formation. 

So how has the Ben Franklin TechCelerator program affected the Virolock team?

“We are scientists” Terrones said. “We realized that when you want to start a business, the science part is important, but as a sales pitch, it’s not as important. You need to make things very accessible. You also need to have a market. If you don’t have any potential customers, there’s no point in establishing a company. Those principles were very important. It’s not only the science that drives the company—you need someone driving the business. For us, it was a different world.”

Fellow team member, Zheng, agreed.

“We were exposed to different aspects [of business development], especially from an entrepreneurship point of view:  How we can find niche market and how we might get some help from the university in terms of legal aspects, accounting, and business setup,” he said. “Now we know where the resources are—that’s very important. The other part was working with the instructors and the other groups to sharpen the whole project to make it presentable. It’s helpful to crystallize our strategy.”