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Grads to watch: entrepreneur Christina Mueller revolutionizing nanotechnology

Making a window on drugs attacking cells—in real time

Nanotechnology is a tiny arena with very big consequences. Breakthroughs in it mean life-changing developments in medical procedures, drug innovations, battery developments and more. And newly minted Chemistry PhD Christina Mueller, who graduated June 9, is revolutionizing its landscape in Ontario and beyond.

“Imagine yourself looking at a drug attacking a cell in real time, in real life,” said Mueller in a video (embedded below) celebrating her fellowship from the Ontario Centre of Excellence for work with her startup, Insight Nanofluidics.

Mueller’s company, launched in 2009, centres around a “plug and play” solution that allows researchers in a diversity of fields to visualize nanofluidic interactions under real life conditions and on a molecular scale: it has a window that researchers look through while liquids flow in one port and out another.

Industry standard is to perform such interactions in an unnatural state: dried out or artificially prepared. But Insight Nanofluidics offers these visuals on a molecular scale in a real environment.

“You could get so much more information from that over looking at something that is prepared in a non-natural state,” said Mueller. “This has the potential to enable really breakthrough sciences and things that change the world.”

Mueller and Insight Nanofluidics was developed through U of T’s Impact Centre —a startup support for innovations in the physical sciences, headed by Professor Cynthia Goh.

“At the Impact Centre our vision is to bring science to benefit society. Christina’s journey with Insight Nanofluidics has encompassed our core value bringing a revolutionary product from the lab into the hands of those studying today’s most pressing issues,” said Goh.

“Christina has grown into a natural leader and is much more prepared for the world upon graduation than if she did not partake in the creation and growth of the company. Christina is a valuable asset and role model in the entrepreneur ecosystem at the Impact Centre, U of T and Ontario.”

Mueller spoke with U of T News about how she’s making a business, and changing the world, by innovating big things in small places.

What does your startup do?
Insight Nanofluidics offers a proprietary nanofluidic cell for transmission electron microscopic (TEM) high-resolution imaging and detailed characterization of liquid and in-liquid samples, with demand in biomedical imaging and analysis, and nanotechnology. This spans university, hospital, clinical and industrial markets.

The technology is disruptive, novel and unique, offering the unprecedented ability to image nanoscale samples submerged in liquids with high resolution, robust flow for high-throughput sample screening, and compatibility with existing instruments to minimize the up-front technology investment required for using our product.

How far along is the business?
I launched Insight in 2009, in the first year of my PhD program, as I combined my original graduate research with a commercialization approach. I’m graduating this June, and the product is approaching market readiness.

How will your startup change the world, the lives of our readers or the future of your sector?
Insight enables a new way of performing microscopy on the molecular scale, allowing for in situ and dynamic studies. Though many individual and (very) scientific approaches are published, there are few commercialization endeavours for our technology.

Insight’s technology has the power to impact nanotechnology all across fields: biology, medical sciences, pharma development, materials sciences, battery development, catalysis development and more. The spectrum of applications for our template product is huge and the impact can be seen in cutting edge research based on it.

How did U of T help you develop your concept?
I was mentored by Prof. Cynthia Goh and Dr. Richard McAloney and the team at the Impact Centre. They gave Insight a home throughout the last years, and provided advice and connections that are invaluable for the company. They also helped me leave ‘laboratory thinking’ behind and move into the business world in a very engaging and inspiring environment. This allowed me to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, which I never would have thought of before.

What’s next for you after graduation?
I’ve been fully focused on Insight since January. And after graduation I’ll continue to work with innovation technologies, and hopefully be able to give back to the next generation of entrepreneurs some of the experiences I gathered.

What does your upcoming convocation mean to you?
It’s finishing one chapter- my PhD- and opening the next. Moving forward to the future!

What’s next for your startup?
We look forward to market entry of our flagship product, to reach full sustainability (outside of external funding which helped the company to overcome the first startup phase), additional hiring, and research and development for new products in the line.