BY ESTABLISHING THE first registered distillery in the country, Jack Daniel built his success on two fundamental ingredients: identifying a need in the community and crafting a quality process to satisfy that need. Today, Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey honors the makers who follow this time-honored success model of finding the sweet spot of where demand and innovation intersect.
When Dr. Charles Shanley strolled onto the stage of the Pitch Distilled competition in Detroit in December, he knew convincing the audience to stay upbeat about his pitch would be a challenge. Past winners have focused on artificial intelligence, the fashion industry and revolutionary eco-friendly building materials, while Shanley’s message was fairly simple and stark.
Shanley is founder and chairman of Detroit-based Seraph Biosciences, a company that focuses on bringing crucial biomedical technology out of the lab and into the doctor’s office. Keen to offer medical professionals a mobile, practical solution for real-time pathogen detection and identification, Shanley and his longtime partners at Seraph are focused on staving off viral pandemics that Shanley says could potentially spell the end of humanity.
“Sure the topic was dark,” Shanley admits with a chuckle, “but what you’re offering is hope. And what you’re talking about is important. [The crowd] normally wouldn’t gravitate too much to a talk about bacterial Armageddon, but they resonated with the hopeful message and an approach that wasn’t about a new drug, device or intervention. Rather, we were providing [patients] with information to make better decisions.”
Identifying Pandemics at the Source
Seraph’s roots trace back to 2011, in the labs at Wayne State University in Detroit, where Shanley and his team first realized the benefits of bringing their high-tech devices into clinical practice. Chief among those was Seraspec technology, founded on the ideas of Nobel laureate Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman and Raman spectroscopy, which shows that when light passes through a transparent material, some light deflects and changes wavelength.
The Seraspec technology allows scientists and doctors to effectively identify pathogens and contaminants by hitting them with laser beams, and then comparing those results against their database of results from a litany of previous tests.
Seraspec tests can identify a pathogen in 100 milliseconds. Seraph has used the technology to make lightning-quick identifications of all flu types, rhinovirus, human papillomavirus, E. coli and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Having that technology at arm’s length for doctors across the globe and correctly identifying an outbreak before it can take hold, Shanley says, is increasingly critical for an interconnected world.
“The threat of antimicrobial resistance and of these viral pandemics is really much more frightening than what’s going on with North Korea and the threat of nuclear war,” Shanley says. “The entire planet could be wiped out in a very short period of time if a resistant virus or bacteria takes hold.”
A Personal Matter with Real Consequences
For co-founder and Chief Science Officer Dr. Gregory Auner, Seraph’s mission has some very personal motivations. Years ago Auner’s cousin checked into the hospital with flu-like symptoms and was sent home to recover, only to return the next day with tachycardia, a rapid resting heartbeat of more than 100 beats per minute.
By the third day of symptoms, doctors had discovered a colony of bacteria in his cousin’s heart and rushed him to surgery, but they were too late. The colony broke off and traveled to his brain, killing him. Days later the original culture came back and revealed Auner’s cousin was suffering from sepsis, a diagnosis that would have been discovered in minutes with the use of the Seraspec technology.
“Had he taken a test that first day, he would be alive today,” Auner says. “That really struck me, and has motivated us to get this out quickly.”
Breaking Through to the Future
Seraph’s work has been largely well received in the medical community, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy for the group to break through a crowded biomedical field. Disruptive medical technologies are expensive; they take time to develop, patent and gain FDA approval before they can be distributed to local hospitals or doctors’ offices.
Perhaps just as tough is convincing those in the field to adopt the technology, or even open their minds to new solutions to old problems.
“Within the medical community there is always a sense of, ‘This is the way we do it,’” says Auner, who’s also a professor in the Department of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at Wayne State. “And when things are disruptive, that’s always a challenge.”
One of the ways to overcome that challenge is to find traction and support outside of the medical community through opportunities like Pitch Distilled. The minds behind Seraph will now take the prize money and publicity from their triumph in Detroit and focus on the veterinary market, where they can continue to improve their software and pathogen database. They expect an FDA clinical trial and then a veterinary clinical trial sometime next year.
Not bad for a group of Detroit doctors and scientists who took another big step in front of their home crowd towards one day bringing their technology to the people who need it most.
“Our vision is for Detroit to be the epicenter of this bio-intelligence revolution [as it was] during the industrial revolution with the automobile,” Shanley says. “It’s a maker community with inventors and innovators, and we believe that an enabling technology like Seraspec can be that type of a revolution.”
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This article was produced by WIRED Brand Lab in partnership with Gentleman Jack.