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Earth-based startup gets a boost from space

Two weeks after being named a finalist in MassChallenge, the world’s largest venture accelerator, Northeastern spinoff Quad Technologies has been selected to receive a $45,000 award from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space as part of the accelerator program’s “sidecar challenge.”

Quad Technologies was one of eight startups selected by CASIS through the MassChallenge Startup Accelerator at a ceremony Wednesday evening to receive funding that will leverage their research on the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory.

“The CASIS prize provides a unique opportunity for Quad,” said Shashi Murthy, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern who is the startup’s co-founder and chief scientific adviser. “It will yield insights that will allow Quad to improve its production process on earth as well as make some fundamental contributions to basic research.”

Quad Technologies specializes in making a dissolvable, magnetic hydrogel that can be used to isolate biological entities—like cells or proteins—from a surrounding matrix such as blood or tissue.

For example, so-called hematopoietic stem cells exist in the blood and could revolutionize the biological engineering and healthcare industries by replacing controversial embryonic stem cells in a range of research applications. But they are currently inaccessible using standard procedures.

“Quad is building a microbead platform for the separation of rare stem cells from biological tissues,” said co-founder Brian Plouffe, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate in chemical engineering from Northeastern. “We’re trying to isolate these stem cells for application in diagnostics, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.”

But making these microbeads is no easy task. The team is forming the beads using a drop-based technique that is highly susceptible to the impacts of gravity. But because the hydrogel consists of a heterogeneous mixture of magnetic nanoparticles, each one comes out a different size.

By removing gravity from the equation, Plouffe and his colleagues hope to determine the best procedure for making uniformly sized droplets, which would streamline the microbead production process.

CASIS was established as the main research arm of NASA in 2011 for carrying out science in space and maximizing the use of the International Space Station through 2020. It is dedicated to supporting and accelerating innovations and new discoveries that will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and our planet.

The award will allow the Quad team to partner with the International Space Station to study the effects of gravity on their process.

“They’re going to make beads in space, we’re going to make identical beads on earth,” said Plouffe. “We’ll do a side-by-side comparison to basically decouple the gravity effects and in doing so we’ll be able to optimize our process and form design equations for forming the beads.”

This is the first time droplet formation will be studied in a microgravity environment.  Thus, said Plouffe, the research stands to inform much more than just a better microbead for Quad.