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Local startup combines technology and life sciences for a new method of vaccines

reparvi.jpgTucson’s biotech industry is growing more robust with Reparvi, a startup company that is looking to combine biology, engineering, and machine learning for powerful new vaccines. Reparvi was granted a year's entrance to the University of Arizona Center for Innovation after winning a competition for startup science companies, which also includes a $4,000 prize and legal assistance to help develop the company. 

Reparvi was co-founded by scientist Deepak Agrawal, who serves as head of discovery and development, and Pete Bantock, who serves as head of the strategy and previously worked at Roche Tissue Diagnostics in Oro Valley. While Agrawal and Bantock have known each other for years, the emergence of COVID-19 prompted them to start a company based around a novel method of vaccine creation. 

Agrawal says the vaccine approach at Reparvi is influenced by his work on viruses starting in the late 1980s. Reparvi is developing a Cell Repair Engineering platform that can create “biologically inspired particles,” similar to viruses, to trigger an immune response like a vaccine.

"Viruses have multiple functions, but one of the things they have to do is take over a cell and replicate. We think that technology has some real potential,” Agrawal said. “We think the real advantage to what Reparvi is doing is the approach: generating a method to be able to engineer a vaccine.” 

Because our immune systems are based on replicating what they’ve encountered, creating a non-virus particle with architecture similar to a virus can trigger an immune response. Reparvi plans to create these particles both through experimental synthesis, and machine learning to understand the key elements of a virus’


“We think to make effective vaccines, you should be thinking about what it is the immune system sees. How best can we engineer this particle to get the optimal immune response?” Agrawal said. “We think that an optimal immune response, we’ll be able to design, by generating particles in a laboratory, and then looking at how changes to the architecture of that particle change the downstream immune response.”

The University of Arizona has described this approach as a “platform technology,” being applicable to a wide variety of viruses and vaccines. While Reparvi earlier had a COVID-19 vaccine in their crosshairs, the technology may prove able to engineer “pan-coronavirus” vaccines, able to resist whole families of diseases as opposed to single strains, because of their special design. Agrawal says this is because viruses that are architecturally similar may serve as blueprints for each other. 

This innovative nature and wide application potential are the core reasons why Reparvi won the University of Arizona Center for Innovation sponsored startup. 

“What we’re looking for is scalable science and technology ventures, a motivated team, working on something novel, is solving a real problem, and are willing to learn and take advantage of our resources,” said UACI executive director Eric Smith. “There were two major things that stood out to us about Reparvi. One is the team. It’s such a motivated and experienced team with scientific knowledge, as well as startup and early-stage business experience. And two, Reparvi is working on what we call a platform technology. Yes, they can help us in our current struggles with the pandemic, but it can also benefit us as a society in the future with the development of other vaccines and systems against viruses.” 

During their year at UACI, Reparvi will have access to office and lab space, a prototyping center, and mentors. UACI will also walk Reparvi through a 27-point roadmap that helps them with “creating a business plan, identifying a target market, product development, marketing resources” and more. 

The startup competition was sponsored by law firm Perkins Coie, which will provide legal assistance and operating agreements to the company. While they’re currently focused on fundraising, being in UACI will also increase their access to funding in order to start lab operations. 

But perhaps most importantly, they will be around other startups. Since being created in 2003, UACI has served more than 100 startups, and they’re currently serving 36. With the startups working alongside each other, there is an increased chance for collaboration. Even during COVID-19 and social distancing, UACI is hosting virtual workshops for their startups to interact. This is a goal for startups at their UA Tech Park located in South Tucson, as well as their new biotech startup incubator in Oro Valley. 

“One thing any good scientist will tell you is one of the most valuable things you get from working in an environment like UACI is the camaraderie,” Agrawal said. “You’re in an environment with a lot of other startups and I think there’s a real value to that, to keep you thinking outside the box.”

The judges who selected Reparvi included Shiva Planjery, co-founder and CEO of tech startup Codelucida; Raj Gangadean, a partner in Perkins Coie’s corporate practice; and Allen Freed, a local entrepreneur. This startup competition sponsored by Perkins Coie is one of many UACI has facilitated. In fact, they recently announced a new competition, the UACI Sponsored Launch Fueled by R&A CPAs, which will grant the winning second stage technology startup team one year of admission to UACI. The winner of this latest local competition will be announced in mid-December.


Read Original Tucson Local Media Article by Jeff Gardner Here

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