Industry: Biotech (Genetic Engineering/Synthetic Biology)
Founding Student Name(s): Aravind Krishnan (Co-Founder & CEO), Udit Garg (Co-Founder & COO), Aarush Sahni (CSO), Andrew Diep-Tran (CBO)
Brief Description of Solution: ToxiSense created a more sustainable and cost-effective sensor for bacterial toxin contamination in medical products and drinking water by genetically engineering a plant to luminesce at different intensities based on the toxin concentration in a sample applied to it.
What led you to launch this venture? The inspiration for this technology came very serendipitously to Aravind, on a class trip to the Jersey shore at the end of 8th grade. I learned from ecologists there that horseshoe crabs, the keystone of the coastal ecosystem, are being overharvested towards extinction, for the use of their blood in bacterial endotoxin testing. Being interested in nature and biology, I was curious to learn more, and found out that this horseshoe crab blood is used to make a substance called LAL (Limulus amoebocyte lysate), which reacts with bacterial toxins. Every single injectable medical product and implantable medical device you and I have ever used has been tested with this horseshoe crab blood, from IV needles to billions of COVID-19 vaccines.
Not only is LAL ravaging the environment, it is also extremely expensive—just one gallon of horseshoe crab blood costs $60,000. Wanting to create a better solution to replace this decades-old technology, I set to work to develop some alternatives. I ultimately honed in upon a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, which has a known immune response to these bacterial endotoxins. I hypothesized that I could engineer this plant to serve as a less expensive and more sustainable biosensor. Through 4 years of work almost every day after school, I conducted experiments for hours, honing my ideas and improving my methods. By the time I finished high school, I had a working first version developed, that quantitatively indicated endotoxin concentration in a sample by luminescing at different intensities. After coming to Penn, I knew I wanted to commercialize my technology, so I brought together a team and set to work making this a reality. Working to bridge science and business through ToxiSense has been an incredible experience and I’m excited to continue this serendipitous journey of discovery and innovation further.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Since officially launching ToxiSense after coming to Penn, our biggest accomplishment has been receiving substantial backing both from the university and some tech-focused VCs, raising about $100K in just one semester. Among these, our greatest success was winning Venture Lab’s Startup Challenge competition. This is an annual event run by Venture Lab, which is the Wharton School’s entrepreneurship center, and offers over $150,000 in funding to successful Penn students. Despite being freshmen competing against a field of mostly MBA-led teams, we were able to win the Perlman Grand Prize (the top award), and several other awards. This win alone earned us $70,000 in funding and over $10,000 in additional in-kind sponsorships. We were not at all expecting to even make it to the live finals, much less win, so our immediate reaction was one of being immensely grateful to all the friends, professors, and other mentors who informally and formally supported us for this competition.
How has your business-related major helped you further this startup venture? I am enrolled in the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences & Management (LSM), a dual-degree program in the Wharton School and College of Arts & Sciences at Penn, allowing me to earn both a life sciences degree and a business-focused degree in Wharton. Through this program, I’m able to bridge my interests in the laboratory and business world by pursuing rigorous coursework in molecular and cell biology, combined with a broad basis in various aspects of business provided by Wharton. Since I was mostly focused on science in high school, the courses in business fundamentals like finance, accounting, management, and statistics in Wharton have helped me build a deeper understanding into how to actually commercialize scientific innovations. Undoubtedly, being part of the LSM program has been a natural bridge into the world of biotech entrepreneurship. Both the combination of classes I’m able to take and the upperclassmen and alumni of the LSM program or Penn at large who have ventures of their own have provided so much mentorship and insight into building startups, which has been invaluable for ToxiSense.
Which business class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? My first semester of freshman year, I took LSMP 121, a class that provided an in-depth overview of the U.S. healthcare ecosystem, biotech industry, and other aspects of the life sciences industry. This class was most impactful for me because it centered around weekly seminars by various leaders in different areas of life sciences and business, from NIH leaders to world-renowned academics to business leaders in small and large biopharma companies. This class was definitely a launching pad for getting a firmer grip on the labyrinth that is the life science industry, so it was fascinating to learn all these aspects and develop this strong basis early on in my time in college.
What business professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Dr. Jacqueline Kirtley, Wharton Professor of Management focusing in Entrepreneurship & Tech Innovation, has been an amazing informal advisor for ToxiSense as the company has quickly grown throughout this past school year. As someone with a deep background in tech-based entrepreneurship, Dr. Kirtley provided valuable insights about the tech startup space and how to succeed as student founders. My co-founder, Udit, took her class last semester, during which he learned valuable advice on developing a venture in the biotech space. This class also included talks from other Penn entrepreneurs with whom we later formed friendships—these founders were also instrumental in mentoring us. Dr. Kirtley also took the time to meet with us outside of class and advise us on what opportunities to pursue in order to most effectively grow ToxiSense. For the Venture Lab Startup Challenge, she even attended our pitch and met with us afterwards to give us feedback on how we did. Dr. Kirtley has definitely gone above-and-beyond, not only as a professor with deep expertise in tech-based entrepreneurship but also as a generous mentor who has helped guide us as young entrepreneurs.
What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? As a founder pursuing business to help scientific innovations create real-world impact, and having started with a project I began in high school, George Yancopoulos (Co-Founder & CEO of Regeneron) is one of my biggest inspirations. Like how I envision my future self, Dr. Yancopoulos is a scientist and inventor at heart, but is an entrepreneur by trade. What I’m most inspired by from his story is his commitment to build Regeneron as a company that “does well by doing good”. Many of the products they’ve developed combat severe diseases that are very widespread, but are mostly concentrated in developing regions and are not very profitable to treat.
One example of this was their drug to treat river blindness. Despite building Regeneron from a scrappy startup after completing his Ph.D. to a multi-billion-dollar company that is now at the top of the biopharma industry, Dr. Yancopoulos hasn’t forgotten his commitment as a scientist for the primary purpose of benefiting humanity—profits will naturally come later. He also has personal significance to my journey. Regeneron sponsors the Science Talent Search, a competition for high school seniors’ science research—I was awarded for the research behind ToxiSense through this competition and have since met Dr. Yancopoulos several times. At ToxiSense, we are committed to this same altruistic mission that Dr. Yancopoulos has made the core of Regeneron and the data-driven, science-focused approach he has implemented to develop lifesaving therapies—these are core principles with which ToxiSense will move forward.
What is your long-term goal with your startup? I envision ToxiSense first spreading our plant-based endotoxin testing biosensor technology around the world, from biopharma companies to water testing NGOs, but then also expanding to other promising areas of genetic engineering based on our research. Over the next few years, we aim to develop a streamlined production system for our test kits and bring them to market in the drinking water testing space, and then for medical product testing after regulatory approval.
In the long-term, ToxiSense has immense potential to grow as a synthetic biology company developing a platform to engineer plants for a whole host of applications. Our next project is likely to be a plant-based biosensor for PFAS contamination in water, and we are excited to continue R&D to explore new areas and ideate new technologies. Even beyond plant-based biosensors, ToxiSense will eventually expand to other applications, from engineering more nutrient-rich staple crops that can grow in rapidly warming environmental conditions around the world, to flowers that help prevent severe diseases in bees and other pollinators. One possible outcome will be a partnership or integration with another company in the synthetic biology space. Synthetic biology is the future of life sciences, and engineering plants holds solutions to many of the problems that can be solved with synthetic biology—ToxiSense will help lead that future and I am excited to continue innovating as we progress forward on this unlikely journey, from a middle school field trip to a startup with worldwide potential.