URI graduate student launches business to speed up biopsy results

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Linden Wyatt, founder of Optera Diagnostics in Providence. Photo by David Schwartz.

KINGSTON, R.I., Nov. 9, 2017—Getting a biopsy for cancer is scary enough, but the long wait for the results can cause even more anxiety.

A University of Rhode Island graduate student studying physics and business has come up with a method to speed up biopsy test results.

Linden Wyatt says his company, Optera Diagnostics, is developing an instrument that can evaluate tissue biopsies in about 15 minutes. He launched the company in August and is preparing to reach out to investors.

“We all know someone who’s gone home after a cancer biopsy and had to wait weeks to find out if he or she has cancer,” says Wyatt. “That kind of waiting is really difficult. Our instrument can change that.”

The business community is taking notice. Last month, Wyatt, 29, of Providence, won the audience choice award—and $3,000—at the Cox Business Startup Competition. And earlier this month, he was a runner-up in the Rhode Island Business Plan Elevator Pitch competition.

Wyatt got interested in cancer treatment when he was a doctoral student working in the URI laboratory of biophysicists Yana Reshetnyak and Oleg Andreev. The couple is renowned for discovering a technology that detects cancerous tumors and delivers treatment to them without harming surrounding healthy cells. The pHLIP peptide targets tumors based on their acidity level.

As part of his studies, Wyatt spent time at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to research whether pHLIP could be used for staining biopsy samples. A big problem now, he says, is that doctors are unable to get real-time test results of tissue from cancer patients, unless they are willing to sacrifice the quality of the analysis.

“We showed that we can stain human cancer tissue and analyze the tissue in about 15 minutes,” says Wyatt. “Since the staining and imaging time is so short we think clinicians could use our method for analyzing patient tissue during biopsy procedures and surgeries.”

The method will also allow surgeons to evaluate tumor margins in real time, cutting down drastically on repeat surgeries and biopsies due to poor diagnosis of those edges, he says.

The key to getting hospitals to adopt the method, Wyatt says, is to provide them with an instrument that can automate the handling, staining, imaging and analysis of the tissue. He founded Optera Diagnostics to develop and market such an instrument, along with single-use kits containing the fluorescent pHLIP-based compound that stains each tissue sample individually.

Born in Boston and raised in Lincoln, Wyatt first came to URI as an undergraduate majoring in physics and math. After graduating in 2012, he went on to earn his doctorate in physics, also at URI, successfully defending his dissertation, “Using the Energy of Membrane-Associated Folding for Tumor Targeting and Intracellular Cargo Delivery,” last July.

He had toyed with the idea of starting his own business but, realizing that he didn’t have much experience in that field, decided to enroll in URI’s Master of Business Administration program, taking classes in the evening, mostly at the Alan Shawn Feinstein School of Education and Professional Studies in Providence. Amazingly, he started taking his M.B.A. classes around the same time he began writing his dissertation.

“I’ve learned skills in my M.B.A. courses that I use every day in my startup,” he says. “I’ve also made some great connections through the program—not only in terms of friendly and helpful students, but also people who can help me raise money and advance my business. And the whole process of applying and enrolling hasn’t been time-consuming at all, which is great because I don’t have a whole lot of time to fill out paperwork and plan class schedules right now.”

Needless to say, he’s a busy man. He even stopped shaving, growing a long lumberjack beard, to save time. In his rare free moments, he volunteers for the Sierra Club, leading backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada in California, the Rockies in Montana and the Sawtooths in Idaho. “You can calm your brain backpacking,” he says. “When you disconnect like that it gives you new perspective—and energy.”

Any tips for college students who want to start a business? “Staying focused is really, really important,” says Wyatt. “It can kind of be a roller coaster. Some days it’s slow, other days it’s way more than you think you can do. Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s great to have a good idea, but you have to convince other people that you have a good idea. Communication skills are crucial.”