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February 1, 2016

Zaiput Flow Technologies: From MIT to Startup in Seven Steps

Zaiput Flow Technologies is bringing innovative tools for continuous flow chemistry to market.

Eric Brown

As a research associate at the at the MIT Department of Chemistry’s Jensen Lab, Andrea Adamo came up with an idea for a device that separates liquids in the context of continuous flow chemistry. Adamo’s liquid-liquid separator, which uses membrane-based separation and a novel on-board pressure controller, greatly simplifies the liquid separation processes used in pharmaceutical research. In 2013, Adamo joined with Harvard biochemist Jennifer Baltz to launch a Cambridge, MA-based company to commercialize the technology.

Andrea Adamo
Founder & CEO

Zaiput Flow Technologies

Zaiput Flow Technologies is thriving in the research market, and is now readying a larger version of the separator. In 2015, the company was announced as a winner of the Galactic Grant Competition along with Nanobiosym. The grant will help Zaiput develop a version of the separator that can be tested at the International Space Station to research the effects of zero gravity on flow chemistry.

The journey from inspiration to startup to outer space did not happen by accident. Here are seven steps in Zaiput’s journey from lab to marketplace.

The Inspiration
As a child in Italy, Andrea and his brother dreamed of launching their own company. But first they had to find the perfect name. The boys spent hours dreaming up names before they found their winner.

“Zaiput doesn’t mean anything, but we liked the sound of it,” says Adamo. “When I finally had a chance to start a company, I thought why not? Some people love it, some hate it, but people remember it.”

The Foundation
Despite his entrepreneurial stirrings, it was science that captivated young Andrea’s attention. After earning a Ph.D. in Fluid Mechanics from the University Federico II of Naples, he came to MIT 15 years ago on a Fulbright scholarship. At MIT, he added another Masters in Science degree and began working as a research associate in the laboratory of Klavs Jensen, Director of MIT’s Chemical Engineering Department.

At Jensen’s lab, Adamo worked on research such as molecular compound delivery to cells, lab-on-a-chip applications, and microfluidic-based detection systems. He was particularly interested in creating devices for continuous flow chemistry, a process in which chemical reactions are achieved by mixing them together as fluids moving through tubes.

“With flow chemistry, we try to have things react as they flow as opposed to reacting in batch in a vessel,” explains Adamo. “The idea has been around for 50 years or more — what is new is applying the approach to a smaller scale, as well as adding high-added-value molecules. Flow can deliver robustness and quality and expands the parameter space that you can use in reactions.”

Pharmaceutical companies have recently begun investing in plant upgrades with flow chemistry and other “continuous manufacturing” technologies. Such designs can cut costs and improve quality by reducing the number of steps, devices, and locations required for drug manufacturing. A Wall Street Journal story last year quoted Bernhardt Trout, director of the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing, as saying continuous manufacturing upgrades can save 30 percent or more in operating costs.

Big pharma’s attraction to flow chemistry reignited Adamo’s entrepreneurial ambitions, and he began to brainstorm how the technology could be applied to the problem of liquid-liquid separation. Current separators have numerous drawbacks, says Adamo.

“In typical separators, you use a funnel shaped container in which liquids separate by gravity,” he says. “You mix things up and wait for them to separate. The problem is that some emulsions take forever to separate, and there’s a cost problem in that the containers can be quite large, and the compounds can be very expensive.”

Adamo was fascinated by a development of Jensen’s in which surface forces were used in a flow chemistry system to separate liquids rather than using gravity. With this technique, different liquids flowing through the same porous membrane react differently.

“It’s kind of like a nonstick pan, which causes different reactions with different kinds of liquids,” says Adamo. “If you pour oil onto it, it will spread out. If you pour water, it beads up.”

The Eureka
Adamo pursued a membrane-based design, but faced an obstacle between concept and workable prototype. “In order to have complete separation, you have to precisely control the pressure on either side of the membrane,” says Adamo.

Adamo soon came up with the solution: a high-precision differential pressure controller that sits on top of the device and ensures the membrane always has the correct separating condition. Adamo’s liquid-liquid-separator had the advantage of using a continuous process like an assembly line.

“The shaking and mixing is done by the flow itself, so you don’t have to wait,” says Adamo. “You can also build a cascading system so you have reaction, separation, reaction, and so on. It saves the chemist the time required to play with different pressures when working on complex applications. You assemble molecules and eventually end up with a product such as a drug or a perfume.”

Jensen, a pioneer in flow chemistry, whose recent spinoffs include SQZ Biotech, encouraged Adamo to explore the technology’s business potential. Adamo was particularly inspired when he showed an early prototype to Tim Jamison, the head of MIT’s Chemistry Department, and now a member of Zaiput’s advisory board. “He told me the prototype was really useful, and that I should have considered selling it,” says Adamo.

The Entrepreneurial Education
Over the years, Adamo had drawn inspiration from the entrepreneurial atmosphere at MIT and the surrounding startup community. Now he had to learn how to become an entrepreneur himself.

Adamo had already received Deshpande funding for another business idea he had formulated at MIT, which “provided a tremendous opportunity to interact with mentors,” he says. “At all the networking events, classes, and talks at MIT, I discovered the beauty of entrepreneurship. I learned how to start thinking about a business, how to identify opportunities.”

To prepare for the launch of Zaiput, Adamo took several business school classes, and attended industry conferences. “At one chemistry conference, I realized that my view of the product’s potential was quite narrow,” says Adamo. “So I looked for more connections and inputs to identify other opportunities.”

Adamo also signed up for the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. “VMS gave me some great advice, and helped me structure the business,” says Adamo. “When you go from theory to practice, there are so many aspects to look at. I also had a great interaction with the MIT Technology Licensing Office.”

The Launch
Adamo’s entrepreneurial education was a big help, but it was no replacement for experience. He wisely chose a co-founder in Baltz who contributed experience in both biochemistry and biotech startups. With the help of MIT institutions like VMS, Adamo (CEO) and Baltz (COO) lined up funding to launch Zaiput in 2012.

Zaiput opened an office in Cambridge, put the finishing touches on the liquid-liquid separator, called SEP10, and unveiled it at the 2013 Flow Chemistry Congress in Boston.

The company quickly found interested customers. After lining up a manufacturer and shipping product, Zaiput added a line of more traditional bench gear: tunable, clog-resistant back pressure regulators.

Zaiput’s location has been a big benefit. “Cambridge is the place you want to be,” Adamo says. “Within a few blocks we have all the greatest pharma companies, as well as the future leaders. We can quickly get connected with opinion leaders and buyers alike, so we don’t have to travel so much.”

Adamo, who is still a part-time MIT research associate, continues to draw on MIT institutions for guidance, and he is also active at the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing.

The Expansion
Adamo’s conversations with customers, mentors, and colleagues led him to realize that scalability was critical. Zaiput is now preparing a larger SEP200 version of the separator designed for a typical flow rate of 200 ml/min, compared to 0-12 ml/min for the current device, and has begun designing an even larger one. The new devices support larger-scale research efforts, and even small-scale manufacturing. Adamo envisions variously sized models for use in clinical trials, where pharma companies can scale up to larger volumes at each stage.

Zaiput is planning to build devices designed “in arrays for complex extraction cases,” says Adamo. When you separate some liquids, such as wine and oil, 10 percent of the alcohol goes into the oil. “If you want to separate out more, you would need to repeat in a cascading system,” he adds. “Today, this process is done with columns 30 meters high. We think we can do it with boxes full of devices.”

Zaiput is also exploring entirely new applications in the food industry and in water remediation. “You could use a version of this to clean up a gasoline spill in a lake,” says Adamo. “You could probably even recover the gasoline and reuse it.”

Although Adamo says the potential for separation technology is “boundless,” he is in no rush to jump into new industries. “As a startup, we are trying to stay focused.”

The Liftoff
Zaiput is now looking for space to set up its own research lab, and there are plans to launch a consulting service. The company recently partnered with Snapdragon Chemistry, another MIT spinoff, which should help it acquire “state of the art flow chemistry knowledge,” says Adamo.

Adamo is thrilled Zaiput won the Galactic Grant earlier this year from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The grant means more than just good PR. “The zero gravity research at the space station may provide important results to improve our products,” says Adamo. “This could also be one of the first steps to enable drug making in space, which you would need for long manned missions.”

As for Adamo’s brother who helped come up with the Zaiput name, he’s now playing a peripheral role in the company, as well. He married Andrea’s co-founder and COO, who is now Jennifer Baltz Adamo.

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