In the Matrix: Erin Crowley In Conversation with RIT
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
The name Wharton’s Jelly may not immediately conjure images of health care products, but soon it may.
Formally called Decellurized Wharton Jelly Matrix, and informally called The Matrix, the natural in vitro cell culturing system can be used by researchers and clinicians to test the effectiveness of chemotherapies before they are given to patients.
When Erin Crowley Ellis ’08 (mechanical engineering) and her father, Michael Crowley, saw the promise of The Matrix, they began a journey to launch Sanatela Medical Solutions, a new bioengineering company in Rochester.
The Matrix is a patented, biometric substance made up of proteins, enzymes and small molecules, that once processed, can be used as a scaffold, or medium, to grow and culture other cells and tissues. The environment is similar to the human body’s tissue and provides a testbed to screen the effects of cancer treatments by administering the drugs onto the scaffold. Testing this way enables researchers to better diagnose disease progression and to adapt treatments accordingly.
Sanatela acquired the patent for The Matrix in 2019. Ellis and Crowley began building a business plan and put together an advisory board consisting of medical experts from universities, such as Stanford, and research hospitals, such as the Roswell Clinic.
Ellis, managing director of AT Venture Center, a venture capital and consulting enterprise and parent company of Sanatela, used a “matrix” of skills from positions she’s held since graduation. This includes automotive engineering with Toyota Corp. to training and certifications in the areas of project management, sales, and the regulatory field.
Coupled with her father’s extensive experience in business development, commercialization, international law and teaching, as well as his connections to RIT—Crowley is the former RIT Research Professor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and served as a member of the Dean’s Board of Advisors for Saunders College of Business—the two made a dynamic team.
In the early development stages of Sanatela, Ellis reached out to RIT for support and found it in the Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) department. She sought help with the manufacturing process design and worked with several graduate students whose work-process flow is integrated into the company today.
“I scored a jackpot with these women,” Ellis said of Annika Garbers, Krista Stanislow and Victoria Nolletti, who graduated in 2020. They were recommended by ISE professor Michael Kuhl, and he oversaw the independent study project.
The students built the production plan, determined resource allocation estimates and equipment layout, and established scheduling and personnel options. Their comprehensive plan would also include regulatory standards and procedures that addressed preventing contamination.
Up next for the company is the launch of phase two human clinical trial, followed by the release of The Matrix as a lab-developed test that can be ordered by both patients and doctors to isolate, culture, and target cancer stem cells.
“We want to be as aggressive as possible to get our product out, to help people with blood cancers. We are going at light speed,” she said. “But you also have to assess risk at every step. Are we doing the right thing – for the company, but more importantly, for people.”