For many children coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, a viewing of the “Star Wars” trilogy led to afternoons of battling make-believe Stormtroopers with homemade light sabers in a backyard re-imagined as the Death Star.
For Charleson Bell, though, the films prompted a dream that would culminate in the chase for a Ph.D. and a way to make the world healthier and safer.
The 28-year-old Bell’s startup, BioNanovations Corp., is on the cutting edge of biotechnology with a product that he has said will cut the wait time for a diagnosis of staph infection from days to minutes.
Though the technology is proprietary and still under development, Bell said by phone from San Francisco where he was seeking investment capital that, “because we use nanotechnology, we are able to deploy it in a handheld device. That’s the whole idea, that now we have this handheld device that’s fully integrated that can run these rapid staph tests and other tests that we develop.”
One in three people carry staphylococcus aureus, the most common form of staphylococcus to cause the infection.
“Most of the staph comes from contact with other humans and it’s the No. 1 cause of serious infections today – skin infections, blood infections, surgical wound infections,” said Dr. Michael Gelfand, professor of medicine in infectious diseases at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “So it’s very, very common, very important, very expensive. It kills a lot of people, and is often resistant to the usual antibiotics requiring difficult to use antibiotics, and very expensive ones.”
When Bell began looking into what sort of medical problems might most benefit from a rapid test, staph immediately became the leading candidate due to its aggressive nature and the research at hand.
“Staph is a highly studied organism, so we were able to get better footing with our science because there was a wealth of literature,” Bell said.
The entrepreneur grew up moving from place to place along the eastern seaboard with a U.S. Marine father, though he claims as home Pawleys Island, S.C., just south of Myrtle Beach, and home to his mother’s family. Bell attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville, S.C. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in the same area. He has a technology license agreement with the university.
The road to realizing his dream of being a biomedical engineer has led him through classrooms, laboratories and, now, boardrooms, yet it began in a darkened movie theater when Bell was a child.
“It was after Luke Skywalker got his hand cut off, and a few scenes later they’re putting another hand on him and there’s a moment where the hand has life-like skin, the flap’s open, you can see the electronics inside moving while he’s moving,” he said. “That freaked all the other little kids, but to me, I was like, I really want to be the guy to make that happen. That’s why I became a biomedical engineer in the first place.”
The road to BioNanovations Corp. was a shorter one – a three-hour drive west along Interstate 40 from Nashville. ZeroTo510 is a medical device accelerator program based in Memphis and backed by venture capital firms Innova Memphis and MB Venture Partners, as well as Memphis Bioworks Foundation and Seed Hatchery. Bell called on ZeroTo510 and it answered with its legion of board members and mentors from area hospitals and medical device manufacturers.
The accelerator got Bell his start, but his company is still in its early life and capital is key. He talks about a “risk culture” and, while he is impassioned about the city, he said “what’s interesting about Memphis is Memphis has a strong community of medical device leaders that I think are looking for innovative products, but are only looking for proven innovative products.”
Now in the most difficult stage of being a medical entrepreneur, the search has sent him far and wide as he travels to give presentations and seek the capital that will help him realize his dream and make the benefits of BioNanovations a reality.
The question as to whether he’d prefer to be in a university laboratory analyzing graphs and data or on the West Coast addressing possible investors, Bell sets off on an enthusiastic rant.
“I’d rather be right where I am,” he said. “I am literally an entrepreneur at heart: I have a vision, I need to explain my vision to people, I need to get capital, I need to build a team to accomplish that vision. I surround myself with expertise, a lot of hard times, great execution, a lot of persistence and pain; years later that idea comes to fruition and then I tell more and more people about the idea and the vision. … Hey, I’ve found my place.”