Ben Franklin Companies Fighting Infectious Disease and its Effects

The outbreak of COVID-19 has galvanized the life sciences community worldwide to help stem the spread of the virus, mitigate the effects of the virus and prevent or minimize future outbreaks.

While southeastern Pennsylvania has numerous large companies working on novel technologies to address these issues across many aspects of pandemic mitigation – vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, surveillance/epidemiology, devices, manufacturing, supply chain – our emerging companies are working on some tremendous innovations.

Below are a few of the case studies of current and previously-funded companies, where Ben Franklin has helped identify technologies or products, then invested in a company that ultimately resulted in a new product to support a customer/partner. These cases were chosen as examples of companies we’ve supported, each of whom have developed technologies with direct relevance to COVID-19 and representing different touchpoints within the development continuum:

Biomeme Inc. is a company which has been able to create the first wave of foundational products on its smart phone-based Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) sequencing platform that is the world’s first mobile end-to-end molecular diagnostic platform. Biomeme’s technology platform transforms a user’s smartphone into a mobile lab for advanced DNA diagnostics and real-time disease surveillance. The system includes a docking station for real-time qPCR, a mobile app to control the system and analyze results, and targeted test kits for preparing samples and identifying pathogens or diseases by their specific DNA or RNA signatures. The cutting-edge platform performs to the gold standard used by the world’s most advanced central labs but requires no lab equipment or special experience to use. Low-cost and user-friendly, the system enables mobile testing at the point-of-need for health care (mobile clinics, disease tracking, home use), agriculture (plant disease tracking, food safety), vector surveillance (Malaria, West Nile, Lyme disease), environmental monitoring (soil and water safety), and more. Most recently, Biomeme has developed a COVID-19 screening test.

ChromaTan is an instrumentation company building a state-of-the-art purification system for the drug-manufacturing sector. The system improves the processing efficiency and reliability, and reduces the costs, of manufacturing biologic drugs such as lifesaving monoclonal antibodies. Biologics, as opposed to drugs, are large molecules derived from living organisms, such as bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. As a result, the manufacturing process is much more complicated both in terms of time and cost. Examples include popular drugs such as Remicade, Humira, and Embrel. As compared to the current standard called “batch” processing (multiple disconnected instruments), Chromatan’s system, a form of “continuous” processing, combines concurrent steps in the manufacturing process into one and is widely viewed as the future of biotech manufacturing. ChromaTan is one of a handful of players with the team and know-how to capitalize on this trend. ChromaTan to advance their systems.

Puresyn, Inc. is one of the country’s leading contract manufacturers of DNA plasmids used in many of the proposed COVID-19 vaccines, such as those being developed by Inovio. DNA vaccines represent a different strategy for vaccine design vs. traditional vaccines based on the protein components of a particular infectious organism. The most critical component of this class of vaccine is a DNA Plasmid, a circular piece of DNA that contains all the information needed to produce the protein that triggers an immune reaction (e.g. the vaccine). Making the plasmid, which each company does with specific sequence information (e.g. COVID-19 sequence) can be done without to much difficulty. However the larger-scale manufacture of plasmids for testing and commercialization is more difficult and laborious. For that reason, many companies chose to outsource the production of their plasmids. Puresyn manufactures plasmids for all of the University of Pennsylvania, CHOP and Wistar—the research institutions associated with Spark Therapeutics, Tmunity, Carisma and more recently, Passage Bio.

MBF (Man’s Best Friend) Therapeutics, is a spin-out of The Wistar Institute and its Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center focused on the development of novel gene-based approaches to animal infectious diseases. With its newest collaboration partners, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Smithfield Foods (the largest producer of pork products in the country) MBFT is developing new vaccines to treat livestock to prevent major economic loss and disruption of the world-wide food chain, including the latest threat—African Swine Fever, recognizing that any new infectious disease has both national and worldwide repercussions with respect to food supplies and national security.

Near Miss Management is an information technology company that has developed a Dynamic Risk Analyzer (DRA), a first-of-its-kind early risk detection and advanced warning platform for the process industries. Near-Miss Management LLC (NMM) is a software company whose technology uncovers industrial process issues in their early and hidden stages, enabling proactive risk detection in order to improve reliability, safety and efficiency of industrial operations. Currently the company has paying customers with installations in over 50 individual plant locations. The company’s novel hidden near-miss framework uses advanced data mining techniques to harness the big data in order to find developing anomalies that are not generally detected using typical engineering models. NMM’s solution changes current production safety standards that are focused mainly on mitigating observable near-misses, such as equipment failures and leaks, by instead identifying near-misses and root-causes ahead of the critical failures. While NMM’s technology has been focused on industrial manufacturing processes, its application to pharmaceutical or med device manufacturing in the context of cGMP manufacturing is a clear expansion of the relevant applications of their technology.

Excision Biotherapeutics, a Temple University spin-out, is a gene therapy company focused on curing viral infectious diseases using a CRISPR/Cas9 based approach. Excision was founded in 2015 and built on multiple years of preclinical development in the lab of gene therapy pioneer Dr. Kamel Khalili. Their lead compound is a CRISPR Cas9/gRNA multiplex biologic (EBT-101) for the eradication of latent human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The company has received considerable press for their promising preclinical work in animal models and is currently finishing IND-enabling primate studies before entering human trials in 2020. While HIV is their primary indication, the company has a pipeline of other use cases such as JC virus (causes progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy in immune compromised patients), herpes simplex virus, and Hepatitis B. Their novel strategy is also applicable to COVID-19.