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Tether Therapeutics: Turning a DARPA Grant into Revolutionary Inhalable Medications

Through its work with DARPA’s Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative, Tether Therapeutics received funding to bring world-changing inhalable medications to market.

  • $5 million+ Raised in seed funding
  • $40 million+ Leveraged in funding from DARPA and philanthropies

The Challenge

Life-threatening respiratory infections including influenza, COVID-19 and RSV are incredibly difficult to treat, especially in regions without top-tier healthcare infrastructure. Dr. Phil Santangelo, a researcher at Georgia Tech, realized that if patients could inhale their meds rather than swallowing a pill or getting a shot, millions of people might benefit.

Santangelo set out to develop a way to get mRNA treatments, like the ones used in COVID-19 vaccines, into patient’s airways. Thanks to support from DARPA, his work led to a new class of polymer nanoparticles that can deliver mRNA into patients’ lungs with incredible accuracy.

Santangelo founded Tether Therapeutics to turn that research into commercial technology that pharmaceutical companies can use to treat infectious diseases.

To make that vision complete, he’d need a lot of support—and money. But venture capitalists typically view product development in ways that differ dramatically from academic scientists. And despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic, most investors think it’s too hard to make money with infectious disease treatments.

Enter the Embedded Entrepreneur

In its role supporting DARPA’s Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative, NobleReach recruited Michael Chang, a former investment banker and venture capitalist with experience working for the Gates Foundation. Given his deep knowledge of the biotech industry and previous connection to Dr. Santangelo’s, Chang was a great pick to guide Tether through the commercialization process as an embedded entrepreneur.

In addition to the necessary business development and market expertise, Chang possessed a clear understanding of the important role that embedded entrepreneurs play in bridging the gaps between the academic and venture capital communities.

“There’s always this kind of dance of evaluating the data that’s been generated to date,” Chang said, “and determining how to best package that data to sell it to investors, while also trying to push the scientists to generate additional data that they might not have thought to.” In Tether’s case, platform-level data—which showed how Tether’s technology could be used for a number of different applications and treatment scenarios—piqued investor interest.

Chang also played a fundamental role in developing Tether’s commercial rationale, interviewing physicians for feedback about the company’s product and doing extensive market research. He guided the company through months of feedback, facilitating conversations with a diverse set of investors to understand each group’s priorities. Ultimately, Chang and Dr. Santangelo developed a use case that resonated with investors, and Tether went on to raise $5 million in seed funding.

“DARPA had put almost $40 million into the lab to develop this technology,” Chang said. “I was really happy that, at the end of the day, we were able to turn all those years of support… into an enterprise that’s going to move forward—it was a huge win.”

Michael is now CEO of Tether Therapeutics, which continues to research and develop new applications for its gene therapy technology, with the intention of bringing products to the general U.S. healthcare market.

  • $1.75M Raised in private equity
  • New Facility Established in Somerville, MA
  • TEMP Thermal Engineering using Materials Physics (TEMP) program performer

The Challenge

Mesodyne’s LightCell power generator is a revolutionary battery technology that uses light to convert any fuel to electricity. LightCell produces no smoke, smell, or sound. LightCell’s way of using electromagnetic radiation to transmit energy can be used in turbine engines and is significantly more efficient than traditional thermophotovoltaic energy conversion systems.

Mesodyne was a performer in DARPA’s Thermal Engineering using Materials Physics (TEMP) program, which aims to create ways to control the direction of radiative transfer while withstanding corrosive and high-temperature environments. Mesodyne’s LightCell is a portable solution designed for defense use cases, where it can be carried by soldiers as a drone charging system that extends flight time by over 10x. Mesodyne’s innovative product is also 75% lighter than existing battery solutions, making it a viable option for consumer applications, as well.

The challenge for Mesodyne was how to bring this groundbreaking technology to market. Mesodyne was pre-revenue and had not yet raised capital.

Entrepreneur Support

Mesodyne brought in Nikhil Jain and Bill Drislane, a pair with decades of experience in product development and operations. They worked closely with the company to assess potential customer groups, create a go-to-market strategy, and develop commercialization and marketing plans.

  • >10x Drone flight time extension
  • 75% Lighter than existing battery solutions

Thanks to the support of NobleReach Emerge, Mesodyne raised $1.75 million in private equity funding and established a new production facility in Somerville, MA. The company is now poised to become a major player in the next-generation battery space. The success of Mesodyne serves as a prime example of how the right support and resources can help companies bring innovative solutions to market.

  • 100+ Jobs created
  • 10,000 Sq ft manufacturing facility built in the U.S.
  • $38.7M Total acquisition

The Challenge

LightDeck Diagnostics, a biotechnology research company, received multiple Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to develop its planar waveguide technology for immunoassay testing. The company’s device is portable, uses disposable test cartridges, and can provide rapid, highly sensitive diagnostics outside of laboratory settings.

During the pandemic, LightDeck Diagnostic leveraged government funds to develop a fast and effective COVID-19 test. LightDeck’s technology can also be used to assess cardiac markers in less than 15 minutes for patients with chest pain, provide full hormonal panels, examine biomarkers for sepsis and immune reactions, test for toxins in water, and provide various veterinary diagnostics.

Though LightDeck Diagnostics’ founding team was technically talented, they had limited expertise in medical commercialization or the FDA approval process.

Entrepreneur Support

LightDeck Diagnostics sought assistance in navigating federal regulatory processes and developing a go-to-market strategy.

Carrie Mulherin, a field-proven entrepreneur in medical startups who navigated the merger between MBio and Brava Diagnostics that formed LightDeck Diagnostics, lent her expertise. As an embedded entrepreneur, Mulherin:

  • Conducted comprehensive strategic market analysis
  • Initiated Research Use Only sales with military medicine sites
  • Assisted in applying for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in 2020 for biomarkers of hospitalization and ventilator risk in COVID-19 patients
  • Helped LightDeck launch a COVID-19 antigen test point-of-care clinical study in 2021

Following the commercialization strategy laid out by Mulherin, LightDeck Diagnostics was able to secure $11 million in Series B funding with US investors and was awarded a $5.6 million BARDA contract in 2021. Additionally, the company was awarded a $35.1 million DoD contract to build a manufacturing facility in Colorado, significantly increasing its production capacity for COVID-19 point-of-care tests.

  • $11M Secured in series B funding
  • $5.6M Awarded in BARDA contract
  • $35.1M Awarded in DoD contract

LightDeck Diagnostics was acquired for $38.7 million and continues to innovate and expand its reach in the biotech industry. Today, the company’s technology is used to assess cardiac markers, hormonal panels, biomarkers for sepsis and immune reactions, toxins in water, and various veterinary diagnostics.

  • $44.8M Raised in venture funding
  • 3D Printers delivered by new SBIR to the Air Force
  • 50 New hires and factory size increased by 5x

The Challenge

Inkbit is an additive manufacturing company spun out of MIT that specializes in using machine vision for industrial applications. The company received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to expand the capabilities of modern additive manufacturing technologies, especially with regard to manipulating high-temperature and abrasive chemicals, and to do so in a way that could be scaled sustainably.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Inkbit received an additional award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to produce 3D-printed vaccine vial stoppers and trachea/airway models to be used in training medical personnel. The challenge then became how to ramp up production quickly to meet the urgent needs of the pandemic response.

Entrepreneur Support

Inkbit brought on Matthew Munderville, a seasoned entrepreneur with expertise in strategy, commercialization, and business development for additive manufacturing businesses. Munderville identified first market penetration and:

Identified the most promising applications for Inkbit’s technology
Defined the business case and ROI for customers
Ran in-depth competitive and techno-economic market analyses to validate the commercial viability of Inkbit’s product
Conducted user interviews to gather feedback and shape product development
From there, Munderville helped to create a pipeline of prospective customers, culminating in a successful funding round where Inkbit raised $44.8 million in venture capital. This allowed Inkbit to increase the size of its factory five times over and hire 50 people. Additionally, Inkbit received a new SBIR to deliver its 3D printers to the Air Force in 2023 for on-site parts manufacturing.

  • $110M In series B funding
  • 50+ Jobs created

The Challenge

ColdQuanta, a quantum technology company and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awardee, received multiple grants by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop its pioneering cold quantum technology.

ColdQuanta created a cold atom system in which atoms are cooled to near absolute zero. Because the atoms are hardly moving at these ultra-cold conditions, lasers can arrange the atoms, perform computations, and record the results—harnessing the atoms’ quantum properties for computing, time, and sensing applications.

ColdQuanta’s system can then be integrated into technologies that operate under normal environmental conditions without the need for refrigeration.

While the company’s quantum technology was set to revolutionize computing and sensing applications, ColdQuanta found itself facing the challenge of how to commercialize this technology successfully for applications such as GPS, radar, sensing technologies, and more.

Entrepreneur Support

ColdQuanta partnered with aerospace executive Karl Pendergast, who is renowned for his track record in determining new technology’s dual-use applications for different markets, to identify commercial and defense implementations of the company’s atomic clock.

Pendergast’s security clearances and professional relationships in the time and frequency industries also made him an ideal partner for a business with potential defense applications; ColdQuanta ultimately secured $110 million in Series B funding.

ColdQuanta now focuses on commercialization areas that require very precise timekeeping and navigation, including GPS, radar, navigational positioning, finance, and satellite uses.