PathOtrak Inc., a company developing technology to reduce the time it takes to conduct food safety tests, was recently awarded a $884,848 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation.
PathOtrak has developed a method of separating and concentrating pathogens from food samples more rapidly than conventional methods, enabling testing to be completed in a fraction of the time it takes currently. Faster testing could help reduce food-borne illnesses from contaminated foods, cut down on food waste, and lower the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from the extended refrigeration and storage of food products.
“This is important funding for us,” said PathOtrak Founder and Chief Executive Officer Javier Atencia, who is also a former research faculty member of the Fischell Department of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland. “We have already developed a product for leafy greens that is currently undergoing regulatory approval through the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC). In addition, we have developed a preliminary product for meat testing. This grant will enable us to scale that product up for meat producers, an important market for us.”
PathOtrak’s technology addresses the enrichment step of food testing, during which samples are incubated for 22-48 hours until enough bacteria are grown to be tested effectively. The company’s solution employs microfiltration processes to create an environment where the bacteria reproduce rapidly. Samples are then ready in as little as four hours, after which they can be analyzed using most current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) pathogen tests for foods.
PathOtrak’s initial technology was jointly developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland and was licensed to the company. That technology was the recipient of the 2015 UMD Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) Invention of the Year Award for the Life Science category.
Since then, PathOtrak has developed a portfolio of technologies focused on expediting food safety tests and tailored to different food matrices, sample sizes, and pathogens. As a result, the company has three patents pending.
The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program has played a key role in PathOtrak’s progress. In all, the company has participated in four national and local I-Corps cohorts.
“I-Corps was amazing for us,” said Atencia. “It has made all the difference. Before participating in I-Corps, I was a scientist who thought of problems to solve. Now I have learned that it’s not about the technology itself; rather, it’s about solving a problem that exists already and providing a solution for it.“
Through I-Corps, Atencia interviewed more than 500 people in the food testing industry across the U.S. About half were in-person, as far away as California and Texas, he said.
“After speaking with food testing professionals, we changed both our product and the market we were addressing,” Atencia explained. “When you read the textbook, it says one thing, but when you go out in the field it is different.”
For example, real-world tests for pathogens in food are on 375-gram samples, not 25 grams, as Atencia thought. “To meet regulations, you have to find one bacterium in that sample,” he explained. “Finding one in 375 grams is quite different than finding one in 25 grams.”
In addition, one I-Corps interview with a food safety director resulted in a complete pivot for PathOtrak’s product, resulting in the company’s second and subsequent patents.
PathOtrak raised $1.2 million in pre-seed funding in 2019, which included investments from the Maryland Momentum Fund and Dingman Center Angels, as well as angel investors from both the U.S. and Europe. The company was incorporated that same year.
During its very early stages, PathOtrak received two TEDCO Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII) Phase I and Phase II awards, as well as an N-STEP (NIST – Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program) award. The company received a $250,000 NSF SBIR Phase I award in 2020.
PathOtrak is a graduate of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, as well the UMD I-Corps Program. The company is also a former Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) funding recipient.
PathOtrak has four employees. The company is located in the Mtech Ventures incubator at the University of Maryland.