UArizona Startup Metfora to Advance AI-Enabled Diagnostic Technology

University of Arizona startup Metfora has announced that it is the recipient of a Small Business Innovation Research Phase l Award from the National Science Foundation to pursue the detection of chronic diseases via multiplex analysis of circulating metabolites. The company will receive a one-year grant of $255,706 to expand a pioneering diagnostic technology originally developed at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

Many diseases have a unique metabolite “fingerprint.” The UArizona-developed technology uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify these fingerprints, potentially identifying diseases earlier than methods currently used.

Formed to commercialize the method developed by associate professors Ruslan Rafikov and Olga Rafikova, Metfora launched as a startup in 2020 through Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the university that commercializes inventions stemming from research. TLA worked with the inventors to patent the technology for the university and license it to the startup. 

The TLA Venture Development team guided the founders through company formation and provided guidance on lean startup methods and customer discovery through its NSF I-Corps program. TLA also helped the startup team with path-to-market business planning, determining the appropriate business model and regulatory requirements, and identifying startup funding requirements and resources such as the SBIR/STTR program. In addition, TLA provided funding support to help de-risk the technology prior to licensing through its Asset Development program.

Upon successful licensing of the technology through TLA, Metfora worked with Arizona FORGE as a FORGE Ahead Resident team, benefiting from iterative analysis and feedback mentoring sessions with industry experts. The process included virtual and in-person strategy discussions, investor practice pitch sessions, one-on-one office hours, and access to FORGE’s resource network for introductions to other biomedical entrepreneurs. FORGE mentors and resources continue to guide Metfora. 

Also along their journey, Metfora joined the University of Arizona Center for Innovation in April 2022, which helped them prepare and refine their business pitch, gave them pointers for securing funding, and readied them for a successful launch into the market by working through the center’s 27-point roadmap program with help from mentors in residence and subject matter experts. Metfora also utilized UACI’s intern program working with a UArizona student to craft a marketing and social media strategy.

“Receiving the SBIR grant from the NSF is a significant milestone for Metfora and a testament to the potential of our innovative technology,” said Rafikov. “This grant will support our continued growth and development, allowing us to further our mission of revolutionizing disease diagnostics and positively impacting society. We are grateful for the recognition from the NSF and look forward to leveraging this funding to drive our progress and success.”

This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project aims to use specific panels of circulating metabolites measured by mass spectrometry and recognized by artificial intelligence as a method for detecting chronic disease conditions, including those associated with mild and non-specific symptoms such as pulmonary arterial hypertension. Notably, research on pre-clinical models shows that alterations in metabolism occur at the stage of mild disease before overt symptoms are evident.

“This is a huge accomplishment for the Metfora team,” said Bruce Burgess, director of venture development at TLA. “Being awarded an SBIR grant is a signal that this technology and this startup team are on the right path and well on their way to advancing a technology that would provide significant benefit to millions of patients suffering from chronic disease.”

The work Metfora is doing through this Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project is targeted at refining a novel metabolite diagnostic blood test indicative of early-stage disease including cancer, chronic heart and lung disorders, and diabetes. The technology analyzes specific panels of blood metabolites indicative of changes in cellular function that occur with the disease. This reduces the diagnostic interval duration from years to days or weeks, diminishes misdiagnosis resulting in improper therapy, and has the potential to alter the use of more invasive diagnostic methods such as biopsies, colonoscopy, heart catheterization from an exploratory to a confirmatory role, and ultimately result in significant cost savings for patients and providers.

“We are pleased to receive the support of the National Science Foundation to advance the development of our technology with this Phase I project,” said Metfora CEO Martin Fuchs. “Metfora previously worked with the NSF through the I-Corps program, and we are delighted to continue our partnership with this forward-looking organization.”

The NSF SBIR program supports scientific and engineering excellence and technological innovation that is moving from the lab to the market.

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