NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - A graduate of Somerville High School, CEO of a student-run biotech startup from Rutgers University that markets a technology platform for use in scientific and medical research, has received a $500,000 commitment from Foundation Venture Capital Group.
Visikol, Inc. sells a versatile clearing agent, which is a chemical formula that renders tissues transparent, allowing researchers to effectively visualize biological tissues in 3-D, as opposed to the traditional slicing based 2-D visualization approach.
This approach saves time, reduces structural damage to samples, and enables more information to be gathered from tissues. Visikol was originally invented to replace chloral hydrate, a controlled substance, for rendering plant tissues transparent. U.S. and European patents for Visikol are pending.
The company was founded by two doctoral students at Rutgers – CEO Michael Johnson. a graduate of Somerville High School and chief science officer Tom Villani – along with chief operating officer Nick Crider, a 2010 graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute who worked for a major medical products company.
Villani developed Visikol – the company and the product share the same name – with his co-inventors, James Simon, distinguished professor of plant biology at Rutgers, and Adolfina Koroch, visiting scientist at Rutgers.
Simon also is director of the university’s New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program and Villani’s major professor as he completes a doctorate in medicinal chemistry at Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy.
“It’s so rare and wonderful to see students develop such a high-value technology and take such a creative approach to commercializing this novel discovery,” said Simon. “From its initial use in botany and quality control to replace chloral hydrate, we started to think about animal research and medical applications.
"That required the students to really stretch, dive into and study new scientific disciplines, and they never lost sight that commercialization had to be based on solid science coupled with a real business orientation," he added. "We are incredibly proud to watch them grow as scientists, how they’ve built this new company with a functional and market needed product from the start and more recently to see the new medical applications of Visikol. And for Villani and Johnson to be doing all this while they are doing their Ph.D. studies is simply remarkable.”
Not only did Johnson and colleagues get the half-million dollar investment from the New Brunswick-based Foundation Venture Capital Group, they recently were approved for space in the Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies, an incubator operated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Located along Route One in North Brunswick, the modern facility was designed for early stage companies in the life sciences and biotechnology. The Visikol team also was named a finalist in AUTM Venture Forum Business Plan Competition and was selected by the National Science Foundation for a $50,000 Innovation Corps Grant.
Visikol already has been used by over 230 researchers around the world to aid in the study of plants. The breakthrough for the Visikol team was realizing that their formula, which was exclusively sold to plant biology researchers, also was capable of making animal tissues transparent.
“We’ve been working closely with Dr. Simon, who has been an extremely valuable advisor, and Dr. Michael Goedken, who has provided important pathology expertise,” said Johnson, a doctoral student in Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
“With their advice, support from the Rutgers research community and funding from the Foundation Venture Capital Group, we’re excited to pursue our dream of creating improved tools for researchers and hopefully one day improving outcomes for patients,” Johnson added
Goedken is the director of research pathology services in Rutgers Translational Sciences, a unit of the Office of Research and Economic Development. The Visikol team says Goedken, who worked for years in the pharmaceutical industry, has been a great resource.
“It’s refreshing to see young scholars who are scientifically curious and earnest,” Goedken said. “I feel fortunate to be working to help bridge the gap between academia and private industry by supporting a team of interdisciplinary specialists so that ideas can truly flourish.”