“If you asked me in 2016 if I thought that NASA would be one of our bigger funders or partners, the answer would have been no.”
– Dr. Nicole Wagner, President and CEO.
LambdaVision is an innovative biotech developing a protein-based artificial retina to restore vision to the millions of patients blinded by retinal degenerative diseases, including retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
LambdaVision entered MassChallenge with the intention to broaden their network, establish and refine their business proposal, secure additional funding, and potentially fill some spots on their Board of Directors. It was a comprehensive list of items. Partnering with NASA to manufacture their artificial retina on the International Space Station (ISS) was not on that initial list.
“I never really thought of conducting research in space or low Earth orbit as a possibility for LambdaVision,” said Dr. Wagner. “Not because I could not imagine it, but because there was no direct path to doing any of that research. At our core, we are an optical vision company, and we just did not have the expertise or experience working in a microgravity environment or conducting experiments in space.”
However, quickly into their first month at MassChallenge, Dr. Wagner was introduced to a representative from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). CASIS was interested in startups and technologies that could leverage the ISS to work in a microgravity laboratory setting, which enables experiments that that cannot be done on Earth.
Microgravity turned out to be the very solution to the obstacle LambdaVision was facing in their production. “We talked to many engineers and contract manufacturing organizations about different ways that we can improve the way in which we manufacture the artificial retina here on Earth: can you spray it? Can you dip it? Can you spin coat it? All different types of options. There are challenges with each, which are often influenced by the effects of gravity. In a microgravity environment, conditions are more homogenous, and issues like sedimentation are less of a concern.”
The relationship developed to include another MassChallenge partner, Boeing, which together with CASIS, connected LambdaVision to their implementation partner, Space Tango. Since these initial meetings, LambdaVision has completed an experiment on the SpaceX CRS-16 mission in 2018, and the company, along with Space Tango, has been awarded $5 million from NASA to continue work in the ISS National Laboratory in the low-Earth orbit. Recently, they were also awarded a Phase II SBIR for looking at how LambdaVision can use this layer by layer manufacturing for research beyond the artificial retina technology.
Dr. Wagner credits MassChallenge for being integral in helping LambdaVision get into biomanufacturing in space, but also acknowledges the mentorship she received during the program for refining her pitch, targeting the right stakeholders, and balancing her expertise in science with scalable business. Additionally, Dr. Wagner found the cohort experience to have tremendous value, especially being around a community of people that understand the challenges of starting a business with the unprecedented common goal of creating a new venture.