Microbiota Collection Innovator Wins Lab to Launch Competition

Marc Connell, a Georgetown University senior, won the first Lab to Launch competition on April 18. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

A Georgetown University undergraduate working to develop the first microbial collection device of its kind was named the winner of the Lab to Launch competition, a program created by AAAS to identify and support young technology innovators in the Washington, D.C., area.

Marc Connell earned top honors at the live pitching finals of Lab to Launch on April 18 at AAAS headquarters, winning $5,000 in seed capital for the BioMap Explorer I, a company he co-founded. Andrew King of PhareTech will take home $3,000 for a second place finish and Matthew Mullin of Sand Scan won $2,000 for his third place finish.

Winning the Lab to Launch competition is “great validation,” said Connell. “It definitely contributes to our overall momentum in producing the device.”

Connell, a pre-medical student graduating this spring, was in a biology class when he had the idea for a probe that would collect microbiota – the micro-organisms that live in and on us – from the small intestine to help deepen understanding the microbiome – those organisms’ genes. Although studying the small intestine is particularly important, as a number of diseases, including diabetes, Crohn’s disease and celiac, are thought to be related to the small intestine, human microbiome projects have mostly captured samples from the mouth and fecal matter, neglecting the remainder of the digestive system.

Additionally, humans absorb the majority of nutrients in the small intestine and there is significant interaction between the immune system and the microbiome of the small intestine, Connell added.

“There are a lot of secrets waiting to be uncovered there,” Connell said.

Connell connected with L. Zane Shuck, a mechanical engineer at the University of West Virginia who was pursuing related projects. The pair has secured four patents and created two versions of a design prototype, which must be small, safe, trackable and capable of capturing multiple samples at once.

“Our solution is a swallowable medical device that can capture samples of intestinal matter as it passes through the digestive system. Researchers would then take these samples and sequence the DNA to determine the underlying microbial community structures,” said Connell.

AAAS’ Research Competitiveness Program invited science and technology entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 30 who live, work or study in the District of Columbia to submit an application and video pitch of an idea or startup based on a science or technology innovation. Connell answered Lab to Launch’s open call earlier this year. A panel of outside experts selected six finalists in fields ranging from mental health to remote sensing technology to participate in a live pitching competition – a mainstay of the startup world.

Each innovator had four minutes to present their idea before a panel of judges – all local innovation and entrepreneurship experts – as members of the public looked on. Participants then fielded four minutes of questioning from the five judges.

The judges scored each innovator on a range of criteria, including the strength of their technology, business strategy, market assessment and presentation skills.

Lisa Cuesta, vice president of NextGen Venture Partners and a Lab to Launch judge, said, “Lab to Launch gave the audience a sneak peek into technology that we may not see in the market for a few years. These entrepreneurs have developed innovative solutions to tough, real-world problems.”

For Connell, the first priority of his pitch was to make the judges understand the importance of research on the small intestine. To hone his pitch, he participated in training opportunities that Lab to Launch provided to finalists, including a webinar on successful pitching hosted by the Center for Advancing Innovation, which, Connell said, helped him gain a deeper understanding of the business community.

“Overall, it was a great experience,” Connell said of Lab to Launch.

Additional training and networking opportunities earlier in the spring were open to all Lab to Launch applicants and members of the public, including a session on funding opportunities hosted by the U.S. Small Business Administration and a session on intellectual property protection hosted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

After graduating next month, Connell plans to take the medical school entrance exam and continue collaborating with Shuck in Morgantown, West Virginia, as they work toward building a functional prototype of the probe. Connell and Shuck then plan to run tests on non-living and animal models, publish findings and look for clients in the research and startup communities.

Connell’s project stood out to judge Tiffany Norwood – the founder and CEO of Tribetan and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Georgetown University – as a compelling story to retell, which she noted will serve him well as he seeks to attract further funding and supporters.

“Marc has assembled an impressive team to build a device that captures important microbiome data,” said Cuesta. “While it’s still a few years out from commercialization, Marc has clearly thought through the go-to-market strategy and partnership opportunities.”

Lab to Launch appears to be the first competition of its kind specifically for those living, working or studying in Washington, D.C., according to the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program. While the team’s research found several science and tech entrepreneurship competitions in the District hosted by universities for their students, none were open to members of the public. With Lab to Launch, two of the finalists were working independent of local universities.

The technology entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Washington, D.C., area has seen “tremendous progress” in the last few years, added Norwood, a native of the city. The area has seen a “perfect storm” of increasing momentum from all players in the community, including entrepreneurs, investors, academia, local government and organizations like AAAS, Norwood said.

“Also, in addition to addressing a gap in D.C. tech entrepreneurship, and giving back to our community, Lab to Launch is envisioned as a model that can be replicated and adapted in other cities/regions where capacity building, mentoring, and support for early stage tech entrepreneurship is missing. We can see the potential for our approach to have benefit internationally as well,” said Charles Dunlap, program director of the Research Competitiveness Program and interim director of the Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs.

“AAAS has a long history of support for the application and societal benefit of research innovations, and we hope that this initiative extends that work in a useful direction,” Dunlap said.