May 10, 2022 - Business

Penn students win over $70,000 to revolutionize water and drug testing

Penn winners
From left to right, Rob Goergen, founder and chairman of G5 Capital, and University of Pennyslvaina students Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran, Aravind Krishnan and Aarush Sahni. Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Four students at the University of Pennsylvania have an idea they believe will transform drug and water testing — and they just won more than $70,000 to help launch it.

Driving the news: ToxiSense, a group founded by the Penn freshmen, took home the top prize at the university's Venture Lab Startup Challenge last month for a proposed model to test certain pharmaceutical products and water for harmful endotoxins.

  • ToxiSense was awarded $70,000 in cash and at least $10,000 worth of additional support services.

The big picture: Both biopharmaceutical products and drinking water must be tested for bacterial endotoxins, which can cause sickness and even death.

  • The biomedical industry is heavily reliant on the use of horseshoe crabs' blue blood, which is both expensive and environmentally damaging, to test for those toxins.
  • A gallon of the blood can cost as much as $60,000.

How it works: ToxiSense genetically engineered a plant — a weed related to cauliflower — to glow based on the amount of endotoxins present, CEO and co-founder Aravind Krishnan told Axios.

  • Krishnan said his group could produce a single endotoxin test for less than 50 cents, compared to $19 per test for those that include horseshoe crab blood.

Zoom in: ToxiSense was among eight finalists competing in the annual startup challenge. Other groups also took home cash awards and prizes to advance their ideas.

  • ToxiSense's members also include Udit Garg, Andrew Diep-Tran and Aarush Sahni.

What they're saying: Krishnan said he hopes the groups idea will be a more cost-effective and sustainable solution to endotoxin testing and will expand access to under-developed countries.

  • The group aims to funnel the prize money into developing the proposal this summer.
  • "We foresee immense potential for our product," he said. "Basically, every single person on the planet right now relies on these horseshoe crabs, so we are excited to usher in a new era of bacterial toxin testing."

What's next: The group will continue to research and hone the idea this summer and develop a test kit.

  • The students hope to pitch their idea to water testing customers in 2023 and eventually sell their product to biopharmaceutical companies as early as 2024, after receiving required federal approvals.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that ToxiSense was awarded $70,000 in cash and at least $10,000 worth of additional support services.

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