These 14 Startup Ideas Made The Cut For WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce $50K Top Prize

Team Name: Acorn Genetics

University: Northwestern University

BIG IndeaBounce 2023 finalist

Concept: Novel solid-state 3rd-gen genetic sequencer for decentralized, affordable, & autonomous sequencing.

Challenge: Millions worldwide each year seek genetic testing to determine whether they carry mutated genes for life-altering diseases, such as Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell Disease. However, many of these individuals cannot access existing screening services for reasons centered around high costs and excessive turnaround times. For under-resourced communities, these barriers often force patients to sacrifice the better health a simple genetic test could grant them. Forgone tests, delayed diagnoses, and late treatment interventions contribute to significantly worsened health outcomes for patients. To address these deficiencies, an affordable, private, and streamlined option for genetic screening is necessary.

Solution: Acorn Genetics is decentralizing genetic sequencing, making it more affordable, accessible, and autonomous for clinicians and patients alike. Using AcornLab, a fully automated novel third-generation genetic sequencer, individuals can sequence their DNA from anywhere for a fraction of the cost and time without any training. This new sequencing technology offers a high level of accuracy without the complexity and time necessary for a traditional genetic test, while also guaranteeing privacy by keeping the results within the hands of the consumer and/or their doctor. The AcornLab gives the ability for patients to test for genetic diseases in the privacy of their homes or at local clinics, receive results within half an hour, and access necessary follow-up care and treatment, all without the fear of their data being collected or sold. The AcornLab device enables clinics to more efficiently test patients without bearing excessive overhead costs of machinery and manpower, particularly strengthening those that serve under-resourced areas. The device’s core functionality is driven by a microfluidic cassette that automates DNA extraction and amplification with minimal user involvement, and a graphene nanopore sequencing chip that generates signals upon DNA translocation for translation into base pair sequences.

The Market: Acorn Genetics is targeting specialty clinics as the primary early-stage customer. The end-user is individuals at risk for a genetic condition who value privacy, speed, and convenience. The TAM for genetic testing globally is $31.8 billion, with a $6.5 billion SAM in the US. At 5% penetration, the SOM in the US is $326 million. Genetic sequencing and testing services in the US and globally is a rapidly expanding market with a CAGR of 13.4%. We are focusing on Sickle Cell Disease as a beachhead worth $10.4 million with 20% penetration. Our partnership with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and CAREST has secured 75+ clinics within North America. We will expand to DTC, telemedicine, pharmacies, and retailers after our initial launch.

Competition: Acorn has developed and patented a solid-state 3rd-gen genetic sequencer, vastly improving the speed, robustness, & cost of current 2nd- & 3rd-gen sequencers. Oxford Nanopore offers a 3rd-gen sequencer, but its protein flow cell (costing $1000 EURO) must be replaced every few uses, whereas graphene flow cells last for tens of thousands of runs. PacBio’s 3rd-gen sequencer is powerful but costs over $500K, making it inaccessible to most clinics. Illumina is the forerunner in 2nd-gen sequencers, but currently does not have 3rd-gen sequencers, limiting their saturation into new cutting-edge markets such as rapid whole genome sequencing or pathogen identification.

Value Creation: Acorn Genetics is currently pursuing a B2B2C model by partnering with clinics and genetic advocacy groups around the globe to deliver carrier and diagnostic genetic tests to the organizations’ clients. We sell our device for $2,000, with a 50% profit from each sale to a business, and follow a razor and blade model, where the bulk of our profit is made from each consumable test kit run on the AcornLab, which sells for $50, giving us margins of 80%. The AcornLab vastly improves upon the scalability and sustainability of current 3rd-generation sequencers through our solid-state design of the graphene nanopore sequencer, which is capable of 10,000+ runs as compared to the 72-hour run time of current 3rd-generation biological nanopore sequencers.

The Team: Acorn comes out of a renowned nanotech lab, the Gianneschi Lab. Ana Cornell, CEO, has 5+ years of genetic research experience and founded Acorn after her father was diagnosed with a genetic condition. Cornell is a 2022 Thiel Fellow and ChicagoInno 25 under 25 award recipient. Max Derbyshire, COO and co-founder, is a 2x startup founder with $5+ million in past revenue generation and student at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Ryan Abbott, MS, is the CTO and SQIBE Researcher at Northwestern with experience in biomedical devices. Rishi Jain, a student in the HPME program at the Feinberg School of Medicine, is the CRO and brings his 5+ years of clinical research. Acorn has a robust advisory board of hard tech founders, regulatory affairs executives, biodefense researchers, angel investors, and genetic counselors, as well as 9 additional undergraduate and graduate researchers and engineers from Northwestern University.

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