The IDSA Foundation’s 2021 IDea Incubator in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (‘JLABS’) offers more than just funding for big ideas in the field of infectious diseases. It provides a platform for sharing your innovation with the ID community and receiving valuable feedback from industry professionals. This year, there’s even more opportunity!
Thanks to the IDSA Foundation’s collaboration with JLABS, up to three IDea Incubator applicants have the chance to apply and be selected for BLUE KNIGHT™ residency through JLABS, either at select physical JLABS locations or virtually*.
Companies selected for Blue Knight residency may have access to unique benefits, including fee assistance, access to JLABS space, dedicated mentorship from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, and dedicated equipment at select JLABS locations.
mPOD is a Blue Knight company that is developing an aptamer-based saliva test for COVID-19. Aptamers are synthetic molecules similar to antibodies that can bind to a specific target. By using aptamers, mPOD’s diagnostic tool is adaptable and can evolve with the aim to detect new COVID-19 variants and other infectious diseases.
mPOD’s journey is a prime example of how Blue Knight seeks to support diverse innovators and first-time founders in the early stages of their ventures by building valuable relationships, providing mentorship and preparing them for future opportunities. We spoke with mPOD Co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Ly to learn about mPOD’s growth and his experience working within the Blue Knight program.
Tell us a bit about mPOD and how your team came together.
Jeffrey: Joanna Ashby, Tony Wang and I are mPOD’s three co-founders. We met at the New York City Health Hackathon just over two years ago. Our initial idea was to develop smart bandages for young children to help parents know when to take the bandage off and whether the healing process had started. While it was interesting, it was not a very applicable market, so we shifted our focus to surgical site infections. We won the Hackathon and decided to keep working together. The rest is history!
How might mPOD’s aptamer-based saliva test for COVID-19 potentially impact health care and the field of infectious diseases?
Jeffrey: Infectious diseases, specifically surgical site infections, was an early focus for us. We were looking into the possibility of creating an implant for use inside a surgical site to inform the healing process. However, after continued customer discovery through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program and assessment of FDA approval needs and cost, we decided to instead pursue in vitro options, and external diagnostics made the most sense.
We were first interested in sepsis, but startups always change, evolve and pivot early on, and so did we. When COVID-19 hit, it aligned well with mPOD’s mission and core technology, which uses aptamers to detect infectious agents. It just made sense to apply our technology to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Being able to put health care insights into the hands of clinicians and patients drives our work.
Using aptamers allows us to provide reliable point-of-care diagnostics. Aptamers are rapidly deployable and robust compared to antibodies. We can select an aptamer against a new target in under a week. Let’s say a new COVID-19 variant shows up – we can select a new aptamer quickly. Our work is about changing the paradigm around how we approach infectious diseases in monitoring, detection and diagnostics.
Overall, our mission is to improve accessibility of health care insights to patients. Accessibility comes in many forms. It refers to cost and being able to have tests that are affordable and simple to use. Accessibility also means being decentralized from the current health care platforms that require you to go to a hospital or clinic and being able to develop simple, point-of-care tests that provide those insights. That’s how we want to transform the world of infectious diseases.
How did mPOD learn about Blue Knight, and why did you decide to apply for the opportunity to be a Blue Knight company?
Jeffrey: I previously worked with another company at JLABS in New York City before I started mPOD, and I had such a great experience there. I knew when I had my own company, I would want to bring the company to JLABS. It took some time because we were still early in our development and growth as a company, but when we applied, an exciting opportunity unfolded.
Blue Knight was particularly integral because mPOD didn’t have the funding to keep a lab going in a world-class facility like JLABS without that support. Blue Knight allowed us to be a part of JLABS at an early stage. Because of the support they’ve given us, we’ve been able to grow.
mPOD was in a very early stage when you applied and were accepted as a Blue Knight company. How has Blue Knight residency helped mPOD progress as an early-stage venture?
Jeffrey: The general support and our mentorship through BARDA in collaboration with JLABS and Blue Knight has allowed our growth to happen. The insights we’ve received have been very helpful. Having a point of contact and support structure for a young startup is essential. It provides guidance and direction. It also gives you someone to lean on when you reach a roadblock. I feel very fortunate. If you don’t have that support and ecosystem, it can be quite harrowing.
For example, Joanna works closely with Rachel Rath on collaborations for conferences and fireside chats. All of the networking opportunities through the Blue Knight program have been amazing for us. We can connect with key industry partners with whom we, on our own, would never have been able to connect.
Overall, it’s just great for a young company to be able to grow and make sure you’re growing in the right direction.
This year, IDea Incubator applicants can also apply for Blue Knight residency. Many participants do not have past experience pitching their innovation. What advice do you have for this year’s IDea Incubator and potential Blue Knight applicants?
Jeffrey: In my industry and field, many founders are technically driven. My biggest advice would be to take your mind out of the lab for a bit and think about what you’re ultimately targeting. What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to achieve it for? How can you best tell that story? Not just for the people you’re pitching to, but to yourselves, your own company and your team. Aligning on that sounds simple, but it’s a process.
You also have to be open to change and keep an open mind. There are a lot of smart people to learn from. Eventually, some of those people might become your customers. The reality is that their use of whatever you’re trying to develop is the most important, so understanding those insights is critical. mPOD’s mission and vision has evolved, and we are continuing to evolve. I think being amenable to that evolution is key.
Why should IDea Incubator applicants also apply for Blue Knight residency?
Jeffrey: Honestly, I would say: “Why not? Why wouldn’t you?” Being able to have this support and guidance to grow is huge. Blue Knight residency is a great way to build your network and receive mentorship from industry experts. No money can buy that. Go into the experience with an open mind, and make sure you’re ready to take in all the benefits and support Blue Knight may be able to provide.
It’s a learning experience, and if it doesn’t work, you keep trying. If you’re learning, you’re winning. That’s the way I look at it. The opportunity to be a part of Blue Knight is incredible.
Are you an innovator or early-stage venture with an idea that has the potential to improve the field of infectious diseases? Apply now for the chance to be an IDea Incubator finalist and for the opportunity to be awarded Blue Knight residency. Applicants selected for Blue Knight residency may differ from IDea Incubator finalists.
The application period has been extended and closes July 28. For more information about competition rules, visit www.idsafoundation.org/ideaincubator.
*Subject to the execution of an Award agreement with Johnson & Johnson Innovation, or any affiliate thereof, and other agreements and/or documentation as is necessary and required for residency at a JLABS physical or virtual “location” to become part of the JLABS and Blue Knight networks
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