Amid his usual day-to-day of meeting with students, writing research papers and grant proposals, and overseeing experiments in a productive lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Randolph Ashton is polishing his pitch.
Ashton, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is co-founder of Neurosetta, a startup company built around technology for modeling human brain and spinal cord development that emerged from his research lab. Launching the company in 2021 has meant adding entrepreneurial skills to his repertoire—understanding market research, clearly defining the technology’s applications, and presenting it all in a way that resonates with potential investors.
“It’s a different side of your brain and a different way to look at things,” says Ashton, who co-founded the company along with lab alumnus Gavin Knight (PhDBME ’18) and former UW-Madison colleague Rebecca Willett.
Neurosetta’s platform, which also employs computational image analysis to rapidly assess neural cells derived from stem cells cultured on microchips, is particularly useful for prescreening chemicals and pharmaceuticals for neurotoxic effects. But it can also be used for disease modeling to enable drug discovery and to investigate genetic mutations that increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders.
Ashton and Knight say their modeling technology offers superior reproducibility and processing rate compared to existing screening options. They’re initially targeting agrochemical companies that create new herbicides and pesticides, based on market guidance they received from UW-Madison’s Discovery to Product (D2P), a program that provides mentorship, education and other resources to faculty, staff and students with entrepreneurial ideas.
D2P is one of several campus resources the group has leveraged to turn Neurosetta from a benchside research lab tool into a company. They received support from the Draper Technology Innovation Fund, a joint resource from D2P and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Ashton, Knight and several other lab members won WARF’s 2020 Innovation Award and earned additional funding by participating in WARF’s Accelerator program, another offering that connects campus innovators to industry experts. More recently, Ashton took part in a quick pitch session at WARF’s Innovation Day as part of Summerfest Tech in June 2022.
Knight, who stayed on in Ashton’s lab as a postdoc after finishing his PhD with a view toward launching the startup (with gentle encouragement from Ashton), participated in D2P’s Innovation-to-Market course and the one-week Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp through the Wisconsin School of Business.
Still, Ashton and Knight say they wouldn’t have a viable product if they hadn’t connected with Willett (now at the University of Chicago), whose lab was also based in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. She added the computational expertise, working with William Sethares, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, to build software capable of analyzing batches of cell images and generate data about their developmental status. Ashton and Knight had previously relied upon manual analysis—by eye—to track the emergence of neural rosettes, a key structural indicator of cell development.
In December 2021, 10 months after formally launching, Neurosetta received a $1.7 million FastTrack Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institutes of Health. The two-and-a-half-year award will allow them to further develop a scalable screening pipeline and continue their journey toward successful commercialization.
“This was something we talked about, even during my PhD, as something that could happen, but there were a number of things that we had to continue building,” says Knight. “It was always sort of in the back of my mind. This was the idea. This would have been my first choice coming out of grad school.”
The Ashton lab has previously received additional financial support from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to develop its technology for translation.
Top photo caption: Associate Professor Randolph Ashton (left) with alumnus Gavin Knight (PhDBME ’18) at WARF’s Innovation Day as part of Summerfest Tech in June 2022. Photo courtesy of WARF.