BME spinoff company Cerillo is an example of how good ideas grow at UVA

Featured in the 2017 UVA LVG Annual Report.

IN THE HEART of every UVA re­search lab, students are working alongside faculty to advance ideas. Jason Papin, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering at UVA, runs the Computational Systems Biology Lab, where undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellows alike gain valuable lab experience working on projects that correlate to their classroom studies.

One of the projects in the Papin lab involved measuring the growth of specific bacteria under varying conditions and required the use of a plate reader. An expensive and large lab instrument, plate readers are used to detect and monitor changes in material samples. The extensive list of controls used in the project resulted in labor-inten­sive data collection for the postdoc­toral student managing the study.

During 24/7 monitoring of the samples in the plate reader, a graduate student, Paul Jensen, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, had an idea for a more efficient way to execute massive data collection. Instead of altering the study, Jensen explored the possibility of redesigning the plate reader to accommodate a significant number of samples by shrinking the size of the instrument. That way, you could use multiple miniature plate readers as opposed to rotating the samples through a single, large plate reader.

After preparing a prototype that was tested in the Papin lab, Jensen and Papin described the device to their close collaborator Erik L. Hewlett, M.D., at the time a professor of medicine and microbiology, who was the chair of UVA Licensing and Ventures Group (LVG) Board of Directors. Hewlett tried the prototype in his lab and, at the same time, encouraged Jensen and Papin to disclose the idea to LVG in order to use the organization’s resources to determine a commercialization path forward.

This idea developed in Papin’s lab and was passed down to the students that followed Jensen after he graduated. These students furthered the technology through the NSS I-Corps program and were awarded translational research funding from the Coulter Foundation, which helped the team outsource part of the prototype design.

An undergraduate biomedical engineering student who was working in Papin’s lab on the project stayed on after graduation as a lab technician to further develop the prototype of the device. That student was Kevin Seitter, who is now the chief engineer of Cerillo, a new venture that formed around the world’s smallest multiwell plate reader.

LVG licensed the intellectual property for the device to Cerillo to launch the company and has sup­ported the team’s efforts toward patenting the technology.

The Cerillo team, including Papin, Hewlett, and Seitter, also employs two UVA biomedical engineering student interns, and their offices are located on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. They have been awarded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding from the National Science Foundation, which was matched by the commonwealth of Virginia to encourage economic development. The team is using these resources to test the prototype and refine the software. They will pursue a Phase II SBIR grant to begin exploring manufacturing options for the device—the next step toward commercialization.