Biotechnology alumnus wins Cox Business pitch competition

May 25, 2017

By Cal State LA News Service

California State University, Los Angeles alumnus John Chi won the top prize at the 4th Annual Cox Business Get Started Orange County Pitch competition.

The Alhambra resident is the chief executive officer of Synova Life Sciences, which has developed a new system for accessing stem cells.

“The business pitch judges recognized John’s potential and the strong impact his technology can have in meeting the needs of patients with degenerative conditions,” said Howard Xu, professor of microbiology and director for the LA BioSpace incubator at Cal State LA.

Chi founded the business while pursuing a Master of Biotechnology through the Program for Applied Biotechnology Studies. Under the instruction of Cal State LA’s Xu and other professors, the graduate program gave Chi greater experience in laboratory work and research literature while he learned about molecular and cell biology.

During the program, he became captivated by a unit that focused on stem cells—the body’s versatile master cells—which can renew, regenerate or even be coaxed into creating different types of cells.

The possibilities for discovery in the rapidly expanding field of study excited Chi. He thought of all of the family and friends who could be helped by the variety of applications: his father, who has an arthritic hip; his friends with various sports injuries.

“I was looking at it and saying ‘this is something that people have to have access to.’ So I started looking at ways to get the cells to people,” recalls Chi.

But lack of easy access to quality stem cell samples is an obstacle. For starters, there is no standard operating protocol for the isolation of stem cells within fatty tissue. The most common method deploys enzymes to dissolve the fat around the stem cells—a process that is slow and destructive. Most methods pose contamination risks, require costly equipment and cleanroom space, or are difficult to use.

So Chi began to focus on a mechanical solution that avoided chemical processes. Drawing from his undergraduate studies in electrical engineering from Stanford University, he constructed a machine that separates the fat from the stem cells while controlling for other variables.

“Everything is sterile. Once the tissue goes into our device, nothing else touches it until it comes back out with the fat removed and the regenerative cells in a readily usable form inside of a syringe,” said Chi.

Its compact size also makes it easier to transport or store in clinics so that doctors can work with samples taken from their own patients. A patient’s body won’t reject its own cells and there’s no risk of disease transmission, Chi said.

After completing his master’s degree in 2015, Chi continued to make breakthroughs in the development of his device. He holds two provisional patents, and Synova has submitted applications for non-provisional and international patents.

Chi also added two doctors to his team—an internal and emergency medicine physician who works on the regulatory and clinical side of the business, and a board certified orthopaedic surgeon who is focusing on patient application.

The prize money from Cox Business Get Started Orange County, as well as prize money from other business pitch competitions that Chi has won, will help Synova refine the device as it enters into the manufacturing phase of the project.

Xu has remained supportive of Chi, offering advice and steering him toward events and meetings that will help him grow his business.

“He’s been amazing. He’s like a ‘lab dad’ because he’s so helpful and he’s continuing to support everything that I’m doing. It feels really good to have that kind of support,” said Chi.

Chi wrote a letter of support in Xu’s grant application to LABioStart, a boot camp to train emerging bioscience entrepreneurs in the region and prepare them to launch bioscience startup companies. He is looking forward to reserving workspace at LA BioSpace at Cal State LA once it opens.

“LA BioSpace will give emerging bioscience entrepreneurs, like John, the chance to work with students and faculty to put Los Angeles at the forefront of the bioscience industry. The innovations these entrepreneurs develop will have a cascading effect on job creation, standards of living, and growth in related industries,” said Cal State LA Executive Vice President Jose A. Gomez, who chairs the LA BioSpace Advisory Board.

Photo: Cal State LA alumnus John Chi, center, receives the grand prize for the 4th Annual Cox Business Get Started Orange County Pitch competition. (Photo courtesy of John Chi.)

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