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Portable HIV blood-testing device from U of T startup, ChipCare, readies for market with $5 million in funding

Headquartered at U of T's Banting & Best Centre, global health venture wins millions above target for its field-testing technology

A doctor performs an HIV test in Munoko, Uganda (photo by Arne Hoel via Flickr)

Imagine having blood drawn for HIV-related testing. And then imagine never finding out the results.

In many low-income and middle-income countries around the world, research suggests that up to 50 per cent of patients don’t receive test results for treatable diseases such as HIV. They’re cut off from labs by poor infrastructure, unreliable sources of electricity, and other realities of life in rural or developing areas.

But what if the testing could be brought to them and performed on the spot?

This is the promise of “point-of-care” testing, a fast-rising trend in the global health field. And ChipCare, a startup driven by unique U of T-developed technology, is poised to revolutionize this type of in-the-field diagnostic work.

University of Toronto researchers James Dou and Stewart Aitchison founded the socially-driven global health venture in 2013, along with biological testing expert Rakesh Nayyar. Soon after, they brought on product developer Lu Chen and signed Chief Executive Officer James Fraser, who brought his experience from Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Dignitas International.

Chipcare device rendering“Everywhere you turn, not having access to diagnostics means lack of access to appropriate treatment,” says Fraser. “When ChipCare found me and made the pitch, it really resonated. There is a humanitarian imperative behind this company. It was a perfect fit."

The company set up headquarters at U of T’s entrepreneurship hub, the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (BBCIE), and continued to win the support and interest of investors and international media including the Wall Street Journal

(Rendering of ChipCare device pictured above)

“They’re a great example of the kind of company we’re happy to foster, the kind that translates deep university research into companies that benefit society,” says Karen Sievewright, director of the BBCIE. “We’re here as a ‘way-finder’ to connect young startups with the space, resources, and support offered by the university.” (Read about U of T's vast network of accelerators and incubators, part of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.)

Chipcare received the largest-ever angel investment of a Canadian healthcare startup back in 2013. Today, as the company readies its prototype for market, ChipCare has just exceeded its latest funding goal with a round of $5 million of investments. 

“The first round of seed funding was to get our handheld platform to a prototype model. We’ve now achieved that and in May or June of this year we’ll have a handheld device for the first time,” said Fraser. “The money we raised just now is to pay for all of the go-to-market aspects like verification trials, clinical trials, regulatory pathways, sales and marketing capacity.

“We tried to raise $3 million and we ended up with $5 million, so it gives us a little bit more breathing room. The next step is to sell the device and save lives."

As ChipCare develops, says Fraser, it will be crucial for investors to recognize that the company needs to be profitable in order to fulfill its global health mission.

“The constellation of investors that we’ve been able to pull in is attuned to that mission and get that we’re not only about profit but also about impact,” says Fraser. “I think it bodes well for social enterprise and other people who are working in universities or are even just inventors in their basements. There are investors who want to see us develop products and services that will have an impact beyond making money.”

The company is looking into a wide range of tests – for other sexually transmitted infections but also for neglected tropical diseases and antenatal care.

“We’re focused on tests that could be very useful for clinical care and would directly save lives, as well as for surveillance purposes, such as understanding the epidemiology of a disease within a community.”

Support for ChipCare from across U of T and from among the university’s partners has been strong right from the start, Fraser says.

Lino DeFacendis from U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office was key when we started. He walked the founders through the whole process of intellectual property commercialization and went above and beyond in terms of helping the team get to the point of investment.”

(James Dou, Lu Chen, Rakesh Nayyar and James Fraser pictured right)

ChipCare also received Connaught funding from U of T “which was important in terms of putting money in the bank and also gave us the imprimatur of the University of Toronto,” when approaching investors, says Fraser.

MaRS Innovation, which works in partnership with U of T, was one of the initial investors, helping the team  develop its intellectual property portfolio,  and its understanding of the market.

“They know how to navigate the scene and maximize the network for us,” says Fraser. “They’ve been awesome. MaRS DD has also been very supportive.

“U of T’s been a really good home. We’ve received lot of support.”

Brianna Goldberg writes about entrepreneurship and produces the Cities podcast for U of T News.