Until a few years ago, MitoStem Inc.’s novel technology for reprogramming human cells was the stuff of science fiction movies. Today, that patent-pending process is undergoing development and commercialization that will accelerate stem-cell research in laboratories and advance the field of regenerative medicine. In the future, reprogrammed stem cells could offer life-saving therapies for patients with chronic or incurable diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as spinal cord injuries.
Little wonder that MitoStem is fast emerging as one of Michigan’s superstar start-ups in the biotechnology sector. The company was started in 2008 by veteran biotech entrepreneur James Eliason at TechTown, Wayne State University’s research and technology park in Detroit. MitoStem is housed at the Great Lakes Stem Cell Commercialization Center, where he also serves as director.
“I’ve been in stem-cell research for 44 years, and this technology blows my mind,” says Eliason, who is company president and chief scientific officer. MitoStem is developing a method for taking adult human cells, such as skin or blood cells, and reprogramming them to behave as if they were embryonic stem cells, capable of reproducing and forming any tissue in the body. These so-called induced pluripotent stem cells have the potential to replace diseased and damaged organs with healthy ones grown in the laboratory.
To finance its early development work, MitoStem received two phase 1 SBIRs, together totaling $350,000, and won $117,000 in business competition awards, including the 2012 GLEQ SmartZone Award and $100,000 pre-seed investment. “We are now in the middle of fundraising for a $500,000 angel round,” reports Eliason, a native Detroiter. “We feel strongly about being a Michigan company headquartered in Detroit, so we are approaching angel investors in Michigan before we go elsewhere to look for financing. This new capital will be used to take our technology out into the market and to pursue patent protection.”
MitoStem’s presentation at the 2013 Michigan Growth Capital Symposium helped the company refine its pitch for angel investment and refresh its networking ties. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of entrepreneurs and investors over the years, and the symposium offered an opportunity to tell them what we’re doing at MitoStem,” explains Eliason, who previously was a founder of Asterand, a leading supplier of human-tissue samples that was recently acquired by Stemgent. “I made contacts with some angels and we’re now following up on those leads.”
Recently, MitoStem completed the licensing of an underlying patented technology from a biotech company in the United Kingdom. Its next step is filing for a patent in the States and then beginning a phased rollout of its product lines. Initially, the company plans to offer a service to create stem cells for researchers from patient samples they supply. The target market for the service will be the U.S. and other places in North America. “This allows us to gain more experience with the technology, as well as generate some revenue,” Eliason explains.
Phase two calls for offering kits containing reagents and instructions that would enable researchers anywhere in the world to reprogram cells and create and maintain stem-cell lines in their own laboratories. “The kits would be more easily scalable than the service work,” Eliason says. “By aiming at the research market, we essentially are crowdsourcing and accelerating the research needed to bring this technology into clinical use.” He estimates that sales of MitoStem’s kits will hit the $50 million mark within the next five or six years. During that time period, the company will begin to move its products toward clinical applications.
Once MitoStem hits its stride in sales and revenues, Eliason plans to seek venture-capital investment to fuel its growth. The endgame, he says, is acquisition of part or all of the company by a scientific or pharmaceutical firm.