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September 18, 2023 Startups, Technology & Innovation

UConn grads hope new diagnostic technology changes cancer treatment, research

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Leila Daneshmandi (left) and Armin Tahmasbi Rad are the co-founders of Farmington-based Encapsulate.
Encapsulate at a glance
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When Armin Tahmasbi Rad and Leila Daneshmandi met at UConn in 2017 while studying biomedical engineering, they didn’t expect to one day become business partners.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Rad, 34, and Daneshmandi, 31, are co-founders of Encapsulate, a startup they founded in 2018 that specializes in cancer treatment and research. The company’s patented tumor-on-a-chip technology allows users to assess tumor behavior in a microenvironment that mimics the human body, so doctors can accurately predict how a tumor reacts to different treatments.

The company has drawn regional and national attention since its founding, raising more than $1.8 million, mostly through grants. Encapsulate participated in Boston’s 2019 MassChallenge startup accelerator, winning a $500,000 “Technology in Space” award. With the grant, the company is exploring how its tumor-on-a-chip technology works in microgravity in space. The company has also secured a grant with the National Science Foundation.

Most recently, Encapsulate was the demo day winner at this summer’s Well4Tech startup incubator bootcamp in Farmington, which has garnered further investor interest, said Daneshmandi, who serves as the company’s chief operating officer.

Connecticut Innovations and Google for Startups have also provided the company funding, the founders said.

Encapsulate has completed two rounds of pilot clinical studies for colorectal and pancreatic cancers, including one with Hartford HealthCare in 2020. It finished another study earlier this year, to help prove the technology’s accuracy.

The company is now preparing for a larger-scale clinical study, with hopes of further proving its technology and raising more venture funding.

“We have data and evidence that the system is working,” said Rad, Encapsulate’s CEO. “Everything is dependent on how the fundraising and trials go, but we are very excited for the next chapter of Encapsulate.”

Developing an idea

Rad and Daneshmandi moved to Connecticut from Iran to study at UConn, and the two now call the state home. They founded Encapsulate with fellow UConn student Reza Amin, who has since left the company to start another business.

Encapsulate’s headquarters is located at the UConn Technology Incubator Program facility in Farmington. Since the technology was developed while the founders were studying at UConn, the university shares patent rights for one of the company’s IPs.

“When we started this as a concept, we were still Ph.D. students,” Rad said.

With specific expertise in regenerative medicine and engineering, the founders developed a patented approach to growing human tissue and tumors outside the body on a biochip after biopsy.

“We can recreate the tumors of a patient just by having a very small piece of it,” Rad said. “We use those pieces of tissue and crank out all the cancer cells from it and recreate a microcopy of the tumor on the chip.”

If Encapsulate can model the interaction of a patient’s tumor with a range of chemotherapy options, oncologists would be able to more accurately and quickly determine effective treatment options, reducing false starts. Hundreds of drugs have been approved for treating cancer, and it’s common for an oncologist to have a choice of 20 or more options to attack any specific form of the disease.

“The whole process takes us only five days, while in a clinic it could take somewhere between two to four weeks until they make a decision (on the treatment) and start treating the patient,” Rad said.

After doing tests on a biochip, Encapsulate generates a report for an oncologist to use in their treatment decision-making process.

In the first few pilot trials, Encapsulate only collected data. During the company’s upcoming larger trial, Rad said the company will share its results and recommendations with oncologists.

Growth and future revenue streams

Still in the clinical study phase, Encapsulate isn’t generating revenue yet. The company has used grant and other funding for clinical studies and to further develop its technology, Daneshmandi said, in addition to supporting four full-time employees and other researchers and staff working part time.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had so much crowdfunding from different organizations and all of them helped us during the early stages of actually developing the product,” Daneshmandi said.

Encapsulate is preparing for its seed-plus round in the coming months, hoping to raise more money heading into 2024, Daneshmandi said.

Down the road, Daneshmandi and Rad see Encapsulate as a lab diagnostic tool. The company will partner with cancer institutes and hospitals to test biopsy samples, and then provide an analysis to oncologists, who will then make the decision on the best treatment option.

Rad said Encapsulate can also be used as a drug development tool for pharmaceutical companies to test and compare new drugs using patient data.

“Clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies cost roughly between half-a-billion dollars to $2 billion, so if you can know in advance how much chance you have, and how the new drug would do compared to what is already (Food and Drug Administration) approved and out there, that’s a big deal to pharma companies,” Rad said.

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