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Reimagining Care for Over 800,000 Bladder Cancer Survivors

Started as an Innovation Sprint in the MS in Innovation and Management program, Cellens is breaking boundaries in healthcare sectors while developing a cell surface scanning technology platform.
From left, Jonas Pirkl, Jean Pham, Fiona Wang, Srushti Acharekar, and Nathaniel Niemiec have made an impact on the healthcare sector through Cellens.

In markets that provide no guarantees, entrepreneurs spend years nurturing ventures and startups. Late nights, raising capital and consumer research are just some of the many demands involved for those who take a chance at addressing unmet needs. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates over 20 percent of new businesses fail in the first year, any chances taken are, by extension, measures of belief in a venture’s viability. 

For Cellens, a Sprint project by MS in Innovation and Management students Srushti Acharekar, Jean Pham, Jonas Pirkl and Fiona Wang – in addition to Igor Sokolov, Tufts Professor and Bernard M. Gordon Senior Faculty Fellow, and Nathaniel Niemiec, a senior Economics student at Tufts  – not taking a chance on their startup meant an even bigger risk of not improving the standard of care for over 800,000 bladder cancer survivors nationwide.

Cellens is developing a high-performing, efficient cell surface scanning technology platform. The core technology leverages the power of atomic force microscopy imaging and machine learning modeling to assist in bladder cancer diagnostics.

“We found out about current pain points, the psychological stress that comes with a diagnosis for patients and caregivers, financial struggles, and many misdiagnoses and late diagnoses due to current screening standards,” Jonas Pirkl, MSIM ’20, wrote after attending the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) Summit. “While many of the stories were uplifting because they were told by survivors, there were also some heartbreaking ones … One doctor we met with at the conference mentioned a ‘huge gap in screening,’ a huge gap we are trying to fill with our technology.”

In the United States, bladder cancer survivors undergo 10 years of cystoscopy in intervals of three to six months to monitor for the cancer’s 50 percent recurrence rate. Current methods of screening are invasive and leave greater room for misdiagnosis. 

Applied, Cellens’ technology would give bladder cancer survivors a minimally invasive, urine-based biomarker test. In addition, the technology provides biotech and pharmaceutical companies a laboratory-developed test for research and development. 

Cellens is co-advised and uses technology invented by Igor Sokolov, PhD. The Tufts professor is a world-recognized expert in Atomic Force Microscopy with 30-plus years of experience in AFM technology.

“After interviewing dozens of patients at the BCAN Summit, I empathize with the need to improve surveillance for a much better patient survival outcome,” said Fiona Wang, MSIM ’20 and MS in Data Science ‘21. “Since then, I put all my passion and devotion into developing the business case and milestones for Cellens. I feel incredible because my family and friends all support my work, and I hold Cellens and myself to a high standard to make sure that we are doing something truly helpful for patients and the healthcare system.”

The group’s high standards have helped them carve out space in healthcare-related industries and the national entrepreneurial community alike. In less than a year, the group has won Tufts Entrepreneurship Center's Montle Prize for Entrepreneurial Achievement, was chosen to poster at the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center & Biotech Incubator (M2D2), participated in the BCAN virtual walk and formed connections with urologists, clinicians, patients and countless others – but that’s not all they’ve accomplished.

In April, the group participated in the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition, held virtually for the first time, and won the entirety of the Medical Devices and Life Science track as well as the Ricci Interdisciplinary Prize. 

“I was very touched to learn about judges’ validation to our progress thus far and feel tremendously appreciative of the support from the community,” said Fiona. 

Earlier this month, VentureWell, an organization that “cultivates a pipeline of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs” named Cellens a recipient of their E-Team Grant which provides funding, training and a platform to elevate their business.  

“Cellens is supported and advised by clinical doctors who have many years of experience treating patients with bladder cancer … these doctors see the value in our tests and are working with us to bring Cellens to market,” said Jean Pham, MSIM ’20 and MS in Human Factors Engineering ‘21, in a pre-recorded Spring Innovation Sprint presentation.

Jean added, “We’re also grateful for the support of our mentors and advisors. These people are serial entrepreneurs, regulatory consultants and even a bladder cancer survivor who believe in the value of such tests.”

As the spring semester winds down, the group is just beginning to ramp up their efforts. Cellens is planning to refine their business, complete a reproducibility study, and later, seek seed funding.

Later this month, the group is slated to compete in the Heartland Challenge hosted by the University of Arkansas from May 27 to 29; invited participants compete for a cash prize pool of $95,000. 

Come June, Cellens will also participate in Rice University’s first-ever virtual Business Plan Competition. Of 400 applicants, Cellens was just one of 40 startups invited to participate. The competition offers over $1.5 million in prizes and past startups have gone on to raise $2.3 billion in funding.  

Despite all their success, their journey had a simple beginning fueled by passion and intellectual curiosity.

“Because my family suffered from cancer misdiagnosis before, I became very vigilant with a trustworthy and integrable diagnosis solution,” said Fiona. “Then, I learned about Dr. Igor Sokolov's IP – which later became our collective Cellens endeavor – with my teammates and was attracted by the very innovative cell surface physical biomarker profiling and cancer detection based on Machine Learning.”