Startups win ‘Galactic Grant Challenge’ to send research projects into space

The winners will have research projects sent to the International Space Station.
The winners will have research projects sent to the International Space Station.

Two Massachusetts companies, Nanobiosym and Zaiput Flow Technologies, will get to test their technologies on the International Space Station and split $500,000 as winners of the state’s inaugural Galactic Grant Challenge.

Governor Charlie Baker presented the awards Tuesday at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Boston.

“Both of those organizations are testament to the cutting-edge innovation and research opportunities we believe are here in Boston and throughout the Commonwealth,” Baker said. “It’s pretty great for all of us that the ISS considers our resources as a productive place to play. As governor I can tell you that my goal is to do nothing to screw up what is working here.”

The competition is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which coordinates research on board the Space Station.

Cambridge startup Nanobiosym has created a system called GeneRadar, a mobile device that analyzes blood and other bodily fluids to detect disease-causing microbes by their genetic profile.

Bacteria mutate faster in microgravity environments like the ISS, and Nanobiosym founder Anita Goel hopes to use the opportunity to observe the mutation rate of a model bacteria. On Earth, bacterial mutations can result in resistance to key antibiotics, resulting in so-called “superbugs.”

Goel’s goal is to modify the GeneRadar system to study mutation rates, and prepare it to predict those changes for a variety of disease-causing bacteria.

“In the future, you’d have a tricorder-like device deployed into outer space and be able to detect mutations in real time and beam that back to earth,” Goel said. For the first set of experiments, however, she hopes to send organisms up to space and analyze them once they return.

Cambridge-based Zaiput Flow Technologies, founded in 2013, will test the behavior of fluids and liquids in microgravity.

The competition was launched in November last year. CASIS has another collaboration in place with the startup accelerator MassChallenge — as part of that partnership, the organization chooses companies from MassChallenge’s program to test their technology in space.

Past winners of that contest have included Quincy-based RasLabs, which included its flexible muscle materials as part of the payload at SpaceX’s launch in April, and genetic engineering startup SQZBiotech.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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