Living in laboratory flasks across the globe, cell cultures are hiding a lot of key insights in plain view of lab technicians developing medical therapies.

“The health of a cell is the key parameter,” said Nigel Reuel, Iowa State University associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.  

Despite the importance of constant surveillance of cell cultures, biopharmaceutical research departments still rely on manual monitoring, which is tedious and risky, Reuel said. Developing a method to automate cell growth would not only lower the risk to the experiment, but give substantial time back to laboratory technicians — a little bit like a shortcut.

“That’s a big deal to anyone who’s done this, because these cells usually grow pretty slowly. It’s kind of annoying for a few days or a week, to just keep pulling manual samples,” Reuel said. “You run the risk of contamination too, anytime you touch your reactor. You could introduce a bug, a virus or bacteria that you don’t want growing, and it’s a very rich soup of nutrients. They’ll grow like crazy. Once you contaminate your reactor, your experiment’s done.”

With a team of Iowa State University students, Reuel developed new sensor stickers to automate monitoring on single-use bioreactors. Now based in ISU’s Roy J. Carver Co-Lab, Reuel’s startup Skroot Laboratories Inc. is selling the technology to biopharmaceutical laboratories developing medical therapies for cancers and other chronic diseases. The mission is in the name: Skroot, an objectively fun word, is an anglicized version of the Polish word for “shortcut.”

Despite Skroot’s focus on pharmaceutical development, the sensor could have applications in biofuels, agricultural feed, polymer material development and other fields.

Research teams are also developing cell therapies that use a patient’s own bodily cells to develop small-batch antibody therapies, which treat cancers and chronic diseases. That’s a market opportunity that takes a lot of care to produce, but hasn’t yet received automated quality control, Reuel said.

“Being based here in Iowa, we’ve had a lot of great connections with these other markets and can see the utility of the technology there as well,” he said.

The sensor looks like a sticker that sits on the wall of the cell culture’s bioreactor container, but has a coil that operates as a capacitor and inductor with a resonant frequency. A small wireless reader sits near the cell reactor and continuously pings the sensor to read its resonant frequency, then sends notifications to lab technicians with updates.

Reuel, who previously founded the now-defunct Volvox Biologic Inc. as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a knack for finding off-road research projects and seeing what they become after he was first inspired as a Brigham Young University undergraduate by Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” research division.

“Their mandate is to try new things, to fail fast and think of something crazy, think of the minimally viable experiment to test the crazy idea,” Reuel said. “I try to replicate that in my academic group. You have your thesis that you’re working on, but some days your thesis project is going to drive you crazy. It’s nice to have these other things where you take part of your time and try crazy things that are safe, test new ideas out. That’s where the fun part of science is.”

Skroot received financial awards from the National Science Foundation, Small Business Innovation Research, the Ag Startup Engine, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and grant funds from the federal CARES Act to support nanovaccine development against the virus that causes COVID-19. Skroot is also hiring: The small team is onboarding a new vice president of sales and business development as the company ramps up a sales pitch for biopharmaceutical companies.

Sensor packages are already for sale on Skroot’s website for individual researchers who want some time back in their week. Reuel is also open to connecting with biomanufacturers interested in other applications for Skroot’s sensors.

“We are focused on cell density, but we see our platform as a gateway hub,” Reuel said. “We’re building a shortcut for ourselves, but here you have a device that could be a shortcut to a lot of different things you might want to measure.”

“Being this entrepreneurial professor and having a company I’m running on the side is fantastic,” he added. “It’s been a really fun adventure so far.”