Startup seeks to bring bacteria test to market

A patented technology developed by Colorado School of Mines researchers for quick and accurate testing of bacterial infections has been licensed by a Golden-based start-up, which hopes to bring a product to market by 2018.

University Professor Emeritus Kent Voorhees, left, and Assistan Research Professor Christopher Cox in the lab

Cobio Diagnostics was incorporated in October 2016 and is the result of a partnership between Mines and Traxion, a business accelerator formed in January of this year and based in the historic armory building in downtown Golden.

The company hopes to develop and receive Food and Drug Administration approval for test strips—similar to over-the-counter pregnancy tests—that can detect the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus or “staph” in pets and distinguish between strains that can and cannot be treated with the antibiotic methicillin.  

Diagnosing a staph infection currently requires a blood or tissue sample that is incubated and then analyzed in the lab using microscopy or spectroscopy, a process that can take days.

“Shortly after we founded Traxion, we reached out to the Office of Technology Transfer at Mines looking for technology that hadn’t been commercialized and that Mines was enthusiastic about,” said Chris Cone, who started the business accelerator with Jennifer Thoemke.

Will Vaughan, director of technology transfer at Mines, pitched methods that were developed over a decade ago by Kent Voorhees, university professor emeritus of chemistry, and two of his PhD students at the time, Angelo Madonna and Jon Rees. “They were two of the best students I’ve had,” said Voorhees, who remains a research professor at Mines. The test they developed “is inexpensive, rapid and sensitive,” he said, and so it made sense to try to bring it to market.

A company called MicroPhage was formed in 2002 to license that technology, eventually producing tests for human use before filing for bankruptcy in 2013.

“We had gotten the patents back, and they were just sitting there,” said Vaughan. “There’s already been a lot of investment in it, and it went through FDA trials, so we know it’s good technology,” he added.

In addition, over the past decade or so, Chemistry Assistant Research Professor Christopher Cox, along with graduate students Nicholas Stambach, Kirk Jensen, Nicholas Saichek; postdoctoral fellow Stephanie Carr; technicians Stephanie Matyi and Megan Dupperault; and a cadre of undergraduates at Mines have advanced the work initially established by Voorhees.

Cox is gearing up to begin the initial Cobio work in the laboratory, and he believes these improvements in the sensitivity and accuracy of the technology will allow Cobio to surpass what was achieved by MicroPhage. "The technology that Cobio will actually get has been developed far beyond that which was used in the original product," Cox said.

Cone says continuing to collaborate closely with Mines, and making it an integral part of how the start-up is structured, will allow Cobio to avoid some of the missteps that made MicroPhage ultimately unsuccessful.

While Cobio is confident in the technology, it is taking measured steps in bringing it to market. “Although pets are under the jurisdiction of the FDA, the process for clearing a diagnostic test is still less stringent for animals,” Cone said. “It’s less risky, it’s a softer entry point, but it’s still a large market.”

From that stage, it won’t take much more work to move into the human market, said Cone, since the same strains of staph can be transmitted between humans and animals. The test could eventually be expanded to other bacteria, such as listeria and E. coli.

Cobio will bring together the inventors and a team of professionals who are experts in testing devices and have plenty of experience in winning FDA approval. “It’s an interesting marriage of academics, research and industry,” Cone said. “In some ways it’s still in the science phase, and we’re working to turn it into a product.”

“If we can pull it off, it’s quite compelling, and quite a revolutionary product,” said Cone, who hopes this collaboration with Mines becomes a model for future start-ups. “There’s at least one or two good ideas that could be spun out from Mines every year, whether they’re from alumni, researchers or even undergraduates.”

“We’re very excited about this one,” Vaughan said. “It’s a mature technology that can probably get to market very quickly. All the pieces are in place.”

Mark Ramirez, Communications Manager, College of Applied Science & Engineering | 303-384-2622 |
Ashley Spurgeon, Editorial Assistant, Mines magazine | 303-273-3959 |