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Northeastern startup named finalist in global competition

On their first day of graduate school at Northeastern, Sean Kevlahan told Adam Hatch of his ambitious vision: Hatch would invent something amazing, and Kevlahan would help him sell it. Four years later, their biotechnology startup Quad Technologies has made it to the final round of the prestigious 2013 MassChallenge, an annual global startup competition that this year has more than $1 million in accelerator grant funding up for grabs.

In 2012, Kevlahan and Hatch co-founded Quad, which aims to commercialize a unique dissolvable hydrogel, along with fellow classmate Brian Plouffe  and associate professor of chemical engineering Shashi Murthy. In June, the company, which has received support from Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator IDEA and the Health Sciences Entrepreneurs program, was named one of 128 MassChallenge semi-finalists from a pool of more than 1,200 applicants. Since then, the Northeastern entrepreneurs have been privy to an elite lineup of talks, lectures, and networking events; financial, spatial, and mentorship resources; and the general “water-cooler effect” that emerges when you put more than 100 innovative thinkers in one room.

On Tuesday, MassChallenge once again whittled down the competition, this time from 128 startups to 26. As part of the elite group, Kevlahan will have the chance to pitch his business to a panel of judges comprising startup executives from companies ranging from Kayak to ZipCar.

The results of the final round of the competition will be announced on Oct. 30 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, where $1 million in accelerator grants will be dished out. In addition, three MassChallenge sponsors will also award prizes to some entrepreneurs.

“I already feel we’ve won,” said Kevlahan. “We’ve made great connections, learned a lot, and received feedback from high-level CEOs.”

The prophesied invention that gave birth to Quad is called QuickGel, which consists of an algae-derived polymer, polyethylene glycol, and a changeable “capture protein,” Kevlahan explained. This protein works like a lock and key to selectively bind particular cell types or biological molecules. The beauty of the system is that a simple trick of chemistry allows it to readily dissolve once its job is done.

These creative entrepreneurial minds envision many applications for this material, but one is already promising to transform one field in particular: stem cell research.

Plouffe, whose expertise lies in magnetic cell separation and isolation, immediately recognized a use for the material in the contentious field. Stem cells hold great promise for treatment advances in diseases ranging from ALS to Parkinson’s Disease to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but there’s currently no effective method to purify the cells, which can derive any other cell type in the body.

It turns out there are hundreds of stem cells circulating through our blood streams at any given moment. If we could harvest those cells, said Kevlahan, then the need for controversial embryonic stem cells would become obsolete.

Standard technologies use magnetic particles to separate the stem cells from their surroundings. The only problem with this method is the particles never loosen their grip. Coating them with QuickGel provides a straightforward workaround, according to Kevlahan, and opens a floodgate of innovation for stem cell researchers. “I like to say that stem cells are the next gold rush, and we’re supplying the pickaxe,” he said.