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Biotech Startup Earns $500,000 Commitment from Foundation Venture Capital Group

With Rutgers grad students as CEO and chief science officer, Visikol Inc. markets a technology platform invented for use in scientific and medical research. Seated, from left, Prof. James Simon and Michael Johnson.
Standing, from left, Nick Crider and Tom Villani
Photo by Peter Byron

Visikol Inc., a student-run biotech startup from Rutgers University–New Brunswick that markets a technology platform for use in scientific and medical research, has earned a $500,000 commitment from Foundation Venture Capital Group, which announced its investment yesterday, February 23.

Visikol sells a versatile clearing agent, which is a chemical formula that renders tissues transparent, allowing researchers to effectively visualize biological tissues in 3-D, as opposed to the traditional slicing based 2-D visualization approach. This approach saves time, reduces structural damage to samples, and enables more information to be gathered from tissues. Visikol was originally invented to replace chloral hydrate, a controlled substance, for rendering plant tissues transparent. U.S. and European patents for Visikol are pending.

The company was founded by two doctoral students at Rutgers – CEO Michael Johnson and chief science officer Tom Villani – along with chief operating officer Nick Crider, a 2010 graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute who worked for a major medical products company.

[The N.J. Technology Council's TechNews magazine recently published a feature on Visikol. It is on pages 14-15 here.]

Villani developed Visikol – the company and the product share the same name – with his co-inventors, James Simon, distinguished professor of plant biology at Rutgers, and Adolfina Koroch, visiting scientist at Rutgers. Simon also is director of the university’s New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program and Villani’s major professor as he completes a doctorate in medicinal chemistry at Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy.

“It’s so rare and wonderful to see students develop such a high-value technology and take such a creative approach to commercializing this novel discovery,” said Simon. “From its initial use in botany and quality control to replace chloral hydrate, we started to think about animal research and medical applications. That required the students to really stretch, dive into and study new scientific disciplines, and they never lost sight that commercialization had to be based on solid science coupled with a real business orientation. We are incredibly proud to watch them grow as scientists, how they’ve built this new company with a functional and market needed product from the start and more recently to see the new medical applications of Visikol. And for Villani and Johnson to be doing all this while they are doing their Ph.D. studies is simply remarkable.”

Not only did Johnson and colleagues get the half-million dollar investment from the New Brunswick-based Foundation Venture Capital Group, they recently were approved for space in the Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies, an incubator operated by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Located along Route One in North Brunswick, the modern facility was designed for early stage companies in the life sciences and biotechnology. The Visikol team also was named a finalist in AUTM Venture Forum Business Plan Competition and was selected by the National Science Foundation for a $50,000 Innovation Corps Grant.

Visikol already has been used by over 230 researchers around the world to aid in the study of plants. The breakthrough for the Visikol team was realizing that their formula, which was exclusively sold to plant biology researchers, also was capable of making animal tissues transparent.

“We’ve been working closely with Dr. Simon, who has been an extremely valuable advisor, and Dr. Michael Goedken, who has provided important pathology expertise,” said Johnson, a doctoral student in Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.“With their advice, support from the Rutgers research community and funding from the Foundation Venture Capital Group, we’re excited to pursue our dream of creating improved tools for researchers and hopefully one day improving outcomes for patients.”

Goedken is the director of research pathology services in Rutgers Translational Sciences, a unit of the Office of Research and Economic Development. The Visikol team says Goedken, who worked for years in the pharmaceutical industry, has been a great resource.

“It’s refreshing to see young scholars who are scientifically curious and earnest,” Goedken said. “I feel fortunate to be working to help bridge the gap between academia and private industry by supporting a team of interdisciplinary specialists so that ideas can truly flourish.”

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university. Established in 1766 and celebrating a milestone 250th anniversary in 2016, the university is the eighth oldest higher education institution in the United States. More than 67,000 students and 22,000 faculty and staff learn, work, and serve the public at Rutgers locations across New Jersey and around the world. Rutgers University–New Brunswick is the only public institution in New Jersey represented in the prestigious Association of American Universities. Rutgers is a member of the Big Ten Conference and its academic counterpart, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of 15 world-class research universities. Rutgers is among the top 30 universities nationally for total R&D funding and achieved an 18.3 percent increase in overall funding for research and sponsored programs in the last fiscal year over the previous year, from $517.6 million in fiscal year 2014 up to $612.5 million in FY2015. The Office of Research and Economic Development is a central point for industry to access Rutgers and offers a website designed for the business community,

About Foundation Venture Capital Group - Foundation Venture Capital Group, an affiliate of New Jersey Health Foundation, makes private equity investments to participate in establishing and managing biomedical start-up companies in New Jersey headed toward commercialization. In addition to Visikol, its portfolio companies currently include:

  • Actinobac Biomed Inc., developing a therapeutic agent targeting blood cells for the treatment of hematological malignancies such as leukemia and lymphomas;
  • Affineti Biologics, Inc., advancing research in the development of therapeutic and diagnostic products based on new discoveries in oral biology and dental medicine;
  • CellXplore, Inc., engaged in the development of biomarker-based in vitro diagnostic assays for cancer;
  • Celvive, Inc., working to develop technology to treat patients with chronic spinal cord injuries with their own adult stem cells;
  • Durin Technologies, working to develop a blood test to diagnose and assess severity of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases;
  • GeneAssess, Inc., developing the FRY gene as a predictive biomarker for breast and other cancers;
  • MentiNova, Inc., working to validate a drug that reduces the side effects of L-Dopa Induced Dyskinesia
  • NovoPedics, Inc., developing an implantable meniscus replacement/regeneration medical device to restore mobility to patients suffering from severe meniscus knee injuries
  • Snowdon Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a drug discovery company focused on several major therapeutic areas and providing computational tools to rapidly