It was the diagnosis of a serious autoimmune disease that propelled UNSW Sydney PhD graduate Alistair Laos into developing technology that could transform injectable-only peptides into edible tablets.
“After finishing my PhD, I became aware that autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Coeliac disease and Lupus have increased significantly over the last 30 years,” said Dr Laos. “I wanted to address at the way peptides, which have the potential to treat various autoimmune diseases, are so fragile they either can't be used as a treatment, or they have to be injected.”
Dr Laos co-founded ReNature Labs, a biotechnology startup that is part of UNSW’s flagship Founders 10x Accelerator program, whose founders pitched their ideas to potential investors at an event in Sydney last week.
The company is using ground-breaking methods to make peptides, such as insulin, available in oral form. It is one of three medtech startups that has participated in the intensive 10-week program, which offers $20,000 grants, mentoring and networking opportunities and masterclasses hosted by Silicon Valley-based startups. Other startups in the second cohort of entrepreneurs to go through the Founders program includes companies in the fields of retail, education, global risk assessment and career mapping.
“The program has transformed me into an entrepreneur who now has the skills to transform fundamental science into real world solutions,” says Dr Laos. “Having been diagnosed with autoimmune adrenal insufficiency, known as Addison’s disease, I was determined to find a way to put my expertise in biophysics and chemistry knowledge to use.”
One of the retail startups in the program is Tiliter, a company revolutionising the checkout to promote sustainability by cutting down on supermarkets packaging loose products to prevent fraud and theft of fresh produce.
“Supermarkets are resorting to plastic wrapping fruits and vegetables just to get barcodes on to them which avoids theft," says co-founder of the smart checkout system Martin Karafilis. “Tiliter is cutting down checkout times dramatically, saving 63 hours for every 10,000 customers at the checkout, making consumers' and cashiers' lives easier with a frictionless checkout process, and reducing the amount of plastic waste used by supermarkets.”
Startup Arludo has developed a library of apps that turns smartphones into science equipment and students into practising citizen scientists, while Motorica has created solutions for fail-safe electric motors.
Another medtech company, Respia, has developed an asthma management system that tracks and records a child’s respiratory health. The company’s product is a world-first wearable chest patch that helps parents pick up the early signs before they are visibly noticeable and still treatable at home.
Founder Katherine Kawecki, a UNSW Industrial Design graduate, said Respia aims to solve the “poor communication between parents and kids with asthma by giving parents real time updates of their child's asthma condition”.
“At the moment 40% of asthmatic kids have an asthma management plan, however, more than 50% of all asthma related hospitalisations are caused by children under 14 years of age. There is an obvious flaw in the current asthma treatment pipeline. These hospitalisations cause significant trauma to the child, stress to the parents and costs to the healthcare system,” says Ms Kawecki.
Sydnov, another medical startup, specialises in cancer diagnostics and new blood tests to monitor the state of a cancer tumour with high sensitivity.
The first cohort of startups graduated in February. More than 400 startups and 600 founders have been supported by UNSW’s existing entrepreneurship programs to date, with more than 25,000 people involved in programs at the Michael Crouch Innovation Centre. More than 100 startups graduate each year from UNSW’s coordinated programs.