Startup Metfora to advance development of AI-enabled diagnostic technology

Mar 07, 2023

Company to take forward UArizona-invented diagnostic platform for the early detection of chronic disease

Left to right: Olga Rafikova and Ruslan Rafikov, College of Medicine - Tucson. Credit: Kris Hanning/College of Medicine-Tucson
Left to right: Olga Rafikova and Ruslan Rafikov, College of Medicine - Tucson. Credit: Kris Hanning/College of Medicine-Tucson


TUCSON, AZ  – University of Arizona startup Metfora, LLC has announced that it is the recipient of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase l Award from the National Science Foundation to pursue the detection of chronic diseases via multiplex analysis of circulating metabolites. The company will receive a one-year grant of $255,706 to expand a pioneering diagnostic technology originally developed at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

Many diseases have a unique metabolite “fingerprint.” The UArizona-developed technology uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify these fingerprints, potentially identifying diseases earlier than methods currently used.

Formed to commercialize the method developed by Associate Professors Ruslan Rafikov and Olga Rafikova, Metfora launched as a startup in 2020 through Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), the office of the university that commercializes inventions stemming from research. TLA worked with the inventors to patent the technology for the university and license it to the startup. The TLA Venture Development team guided the founders through company formation and provided guidance on lean startup methods and customer discovery through its NSF I-Corps program. TLA also helped the startup team with path-to-market business planning, determining the appropriate business model and regulatory requirements, and identifying startup funding requirements and resources such as the SBIR/STTR program. In addition, TLA provided funding support to help de-risk the technology prior to licensing through its Asset Development program.

Upon successful licensing of the technology through TLA, Metfora worked with Arizona FORGE as a FORGE Ahead Resident team, benefiting from iterative analysis and feedback mentoring sessions with industry experts. The process included virtual and in-person strategy discussions, investor practice pitch sessions, one-on-one office hours, and access to FORGE’s resource network for introductions to other biomedical entrepreneurs. FORGE mentors and resources continue to guide Metfora. Also along their journey, Metfora joined the University of Arizona Center for Innovation (UACI) in April 2022, which helped them prepare and refine their business pitch, gave them pointers for securing funding, and readied them for a successful launch into the market by working through the center’s 27-point roadmap program with help from mentors in residence and subject matter experts. Metfora also utilized UACI’s intern program working with a UArizona student to craft a marketing and social media strategy.

“Receiving the SBIR grant from the NSF is a significant milestone for Metfora and a testament to the potential of our innovative technology,” said Rafikov. “This grant will support our continued growth and development, allowing us to further our mission of revolutionizing disease diagnostics and positively impacting society. We are grateful for the recognition from the NSF and look forward to leveraging this funding to drive our progress and success.”

This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project aims to use specific panels of circulating metabolites measured by mass spectrometry (MS) and recognized by artificial intelligence as a method for detecting chronic disease conditions, including those associated with mild and non-specific symptoms such as pulmonary arterial hypertension. Notably, research on pre-clinical models shows that alterations in metabolism occur at the stage of mild disease before overt symptoms are evident.

"This is a huge accomplishment for the Metfora team," said Bruce Burgess, director of venture development at TLA. "Being awarded an SBIR grant is a signal that this technology and this startup team are on the right path and well on their way to advancing a technology that would provide significant benefit to millions of patients suffering from chronic disease."

The work Metfora is doing through this Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project is targeted at refining a novel metabolite diagnostic blood test indicative of early-stage disease including cancer, chronic heart and lung disorders, and diabetes. The technology analyzes specific panels of blood metabolites indicative of changes in cellular function that occur with the disease. This reduces the diagnostic interval duration from years to days or weeks, diminishes misdiagnosis resulting in improper therapy, and has the potential to alter the use of more invasive diagnostic methods such as biopsies, colonoscopy, heart catheterization from an exploratory to a confirmatory role, and ultimately result in significant cost savings for patients and providers.

“We are pleased to receive the support of the National Science Foundation to advance the development of our technology with this Phase I project,” said Metfora Chief Executive Officer Martin Fuchs. “Metfora previously worked with the NSF through the I-Corps program, and we are delighted to continue our partnership with this forward-looking organization.”

The NSF SBIR program supports scientific and engineering excellence and technological innovation that is moving from the lab to the market.

About Tech Launch Arizona

Tech Launch Arizona (TLA) is the office of the University of Arizona that creates social and economic impact through commercializing inventions stemming from university research. The office builds connections between talented UA faculty, researchers and staff and experienced entrepreneurs and investors, to create an ecosystem that refines ideas that start in research and innovation and grows them into products and businesses that benefit society. TLA supports entrepreneurship through a variety of initiatives, including training startup teams in customer discovery, providing funding to advance early-stage inventions toward market readiness, and hosting challenges to help students and faculty move innovative ideas from concept to societal impact. In its 10-year history, TLA has taken in over 2,400 invention disclosures, had over 500 U.S. patents issued, executed upwards of 490 licenses and options for university technologies, and launched over 125 startups. All of this has generated an economic output of over $1.6 billion.

About the UA Center for Innovation

​The University of Arizona Center for Innovation (UACI) is a startup incubator network with outposts across the Southern Arizona region and a mission to grow scalable science and technology startup ventures that fuel the Arizona economy. For nearly two decades, the program has directly served over 140 companies and impacted thousands of entrepreneurs. This is done through providing access to people, programming and places that help entrepreneurs take their companies from idea to market. Startups go through a structured program that takes them through a continuum of education provided by mentors, advisors and community collaborators. UACI also provides access to service providers, industry cluster groups, interns and connections to potential customers and strategic partners. Entrepreneurs utilize various physical spaces that include offices, wet and dry labs, meeting rooms, a prototyping center, collaboration areas and the infrastructure to support these spaces. The UACI is part of Tech Parks Arizona, which brings together university, industry and community, creating “interactive ground” to advance technology innovation.

About Arizona FORGE

University of Arizona FORGE (Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow Entrepreneurs) is a unique entrepreneurial community combining experiential student and community venture education alongside startup acceleration through three major initiatives. The FORGE Student Venture Pathways initiative cultivates entrepreneurial thinking for students across all majors, through ongoing Venture 101 entrepreneurial education, mentoring, and coaching. The FORGE Ahead initiative sponsors resident startup acceleration, providing services and access to resources critical for scale and launch. The FORGE Communities initiative works alongside organizations and individuals who are passionate about their local innovation ecosystems, providing support for entrepreneurs and changemakers striving for impact wherever the University of Arizona has a presence. FORGE currently operates three locations on the University of Arizona Tucson campus; STEAM FORGE, Resilience FORGE and Consumer FORGE, in addition to FORGE at Roy Place, the flagship location in downtown Tucson.  FORGE also maintains programs and staff at the Phoenix Bioscience Core, Yuma Academic Center and Native FORGE, a statewide program working with tribal entrepreneurs.