THE INSTITUTE As a youngster in his picturesque Italian hometown Ascoli Piceno, Massimo Alberti wanted to be a doctor. He also excelled in math, though, so he decided to combine the two and become a biomedical engineer. After getting his Ph.D. in microtechnology and nanotechnology, and working for several years in the biotech field, the IEEE member took his two passions to the next level in 2019.
Alberti helped found Revivo Biosystems, a Singapore-based company whose platform can test ingredients in drugs, cosmetics, and other consumer products on human tissue samples and lab-grown simulants. The company’s organ-on-a chip systems are disposable, multichamber, plastic microfluidic chips for studying the permeation and safety of chemicals.
A tissue sample is placed—or a human cell-based simulant is grown—in between two chambers. The chemical of interest is placed in one chamber. If any of it passes through the tissue or any marker is produced by the tissue as a response to the chemical, it is picked up by fluid flowing under the tissue in the other chamber. The fluid then is deposited in wells, so a researcher can measure how much of the chemical passed through or was released by the sample.
Conducting permeation experiments using Revivo’s system is less expensive than current methods because smaller skin tissues—as little as 50 square millimeters—can be used. Consequently, smaller amounts of the drugs can be tested, because for the same dosage, the exposure area is smaller. And with Revivo’s platform, the testing procedures can be automated, so the labor costs can be reduced up to 10 times, Alberti says.
Revivo’s platform can be used for a variety of human tissue models, not just skin. Tests done on such tissue are more reliable than those performed on animals, Alberti says. Animal testing not only harms animals; it’s also ineffective because animals are genetically and biologically different from humans. In addition, only about 10 percent of experimental drugs tested on animals actually reach or pass the human clinical-trial stage, Alberti says.
“Having a realistic model means test results are more accurate, and it reduces the time gap between preclinical studies and clinical studies on humans,” he says. Preclinical studies help to decide whether a drug is safe, effective, and ready for further testing.
“Tests done on traditional alternatives to animals don’t mimic the function of human blood flow,” Alberti adds, “because they are based on static culture processes.” Thus those models are not realistic enough.
In contrast, the microfluidic approach enabled by Revivo’s platform, re-creates conditions as close as possible to the ones in the human body, such as temperature and blood pressure. The platform promotes the right stimuli to generate the most realistic models that can be obtained in the lab, Alberti says. Also, he says, lab techs traditionally have had to “spend hours doing simple and tedious manual operations, which now can be automated.”
Alberti has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from the Politecnico di Milano and a doctorate in microtechnology and nanotechnology from the Technical University of Denmark near Copenhagen. Before launching his company, he worked for Kementec Diagnostics, a biotech company in Taastrup, Denmark. He started at Kementec as a researcher and then joined the company’s sales and marketing department, working on strategy and business development.
“It was kind of a link between R&D and sales,” he says, “and as such I was involved in most of the operations of a medium-size enterprise.”
He left Kementec to work for the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), a government-funded research institute in Singapore.
Revivo is a spinoff of a skin-culture and testing project he helped develop there. While piloting the system, he saw its commercial potential and was granted a license for the technology from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology, which is part of A*STAR.
Alberti started Revivo with Sriram Gopu, an expert in tissue engineering and stem cells who worked at A*STAR with Alberti to develop the technology; and Bert Grobben, an experienced business developer and entrepreneur who has worked with multinational consumer companies as well as startups.
Alberti’s background in sales and marketing pushed him to look for a commercial application for his research, while his engineering background made him want to “create something useful for someone, something bigger than oneself,” he says.
“Our company is not only about trying to help save people’s lives by providing tools that can improve research on diseases and skin-care products,” he says. “It’s also doing good for animals, because we try to reduce testing on them. It’s a win-win for humans and animals.”
IEEE STARTUP STAR
Although fundraising is a challenge for any startup, Alberti says Revivo is in an unusual position for a deep-tech startup because it had potential customers interested in its technology from the beginning. They include research labs, ingredient providers, pharmaceutical companies, and cosmetics manufacturers.
Revivo has won several startup competitions. It was named a 2019 IEEE N3XT Star by the IEEE Entrepreneurship community during the Slingshot 2019 competition, held in conjunction with the Singapore FinTech Festival.
“It felt great to receive an award that recognizes the excellence of your technology and the efforts you’ve done to grow it into a startup. It goes a little bit into your heart,” Alberti says. “It was a great achievement for me personally and for Revivo Biosystems professionally. We are proud to be part of a multidisciplinary team that launched a company that brings together biologists and engineers.”
The IEEE award has brought more visibility to the company, garnered endorsements, and attracted interest from investors, he says: “It’s definitely a plus and an added value that we are going to leverage.”
Revivo is already offering services for chemical testing and is raising funds so it can launch its first product line by the end of this year.
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.