Finish up to start-up: Biomedical engineering alumna applies degree as vice president of local company
Earning a doctoral degree is an accomplishment like no other. The path to completing the degree can take years, with graduation feeling like a hard-earned end to a journey filled with learning opportunities, challenges, and hands-on experiences. While this was true for Alex Hyler, who received her doctorate in 2018 from the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences program through the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, graduation was also a beginning.
“I took this opportunity to lead research and commercialization at a start-up here in Blacksburg to pursue all of my passions, many of which I found while at Virginia Tech,” said Hyler, Virginia Tech’s Graduate Student of the Year 2018. “It is exciting to see the research I did – and that others do – turn into real products and applications.”
Since 2018, Hyler has been chief scientist officer and vice president at CytoRecovery, a start-up co-founded by Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, and Leo Harris, alumnus of Virginia Tech. The company, which was founded in 2017, develops new technology to rapidly sort and recover different cell types for use in disease research, drug development, and therapeutic applications. Their goal was to build and market their advanced microfluidic technology to more researchers.
Hyler has further expanded their operations, as leader of a team that is working to commercialize a novel cell-sorting platform with improved cell viability, recovery, and behavior. "Everything I do is based on the foundation of inventing technologies for sorting or enriching various cell populations," Hyler said. Her role worked to take an innovative, engineered technology and convert it into a user-friendly platform for all life science researchers. The core invention of the company was creating a device to sort and enrich cells, and now the company has built a platform around that for everyday use.
CytoRecovery began with Davalos’ patented cell-sorting method that uses electrical fields to move cells. The start-up has expanded upon that foundation, having licensed that patent, to build a platform for labs across the nation to use. When large, centralized facilities assist researchers in sorting cells, many tag the cells for sorting, which changes the cells’ behavior and can make them unrecoverable. CytoRecovery addressed this issue by using a marker-free approach to sort the cells based on biophysical properties rather than using tags. The cells remain untouched, label-free, and ready to be used in any additional downstream research like single-cell sequencing or novel therapeutics testing.
Most of CytoRecovery’s cell sorting has been conducted in its lab at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, but the company has also completed on-site beta testing at various lab locations. Hyler is finalizing set-up of the company’s first external system at the University of California – Irvine. Enabling other scientists and researchers to use marker-free cell enrichments without CytoRecovery’s expertise on-site is a big advance, said Hyler.
“This is such a big deal to me,” said Hyler. “As an advocate of scientific research, seeing our start-up being able to get these systems to labs so researchers can sort cells and continue advancing their therapies and solutions to complex healthcare and engineering issues, is amazing.”
Although Hyler is currently working in applied research, she has spent her fair share of time in labs finding solutions to complex engineering issues. As a graduate student, she looked at the microenvironment of ovarian cancer cells to better understand its complexities. Unlike other cancers that often metastasize through the lymphatic system, ovarian cancer seems to advance through abdominal fluids. Combining the expertise of faculty across disciplines in the College of Engineering, as well as Eva Schmelz, a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, Hyler looked at microdevices featuring biological questions about ovarian cancer, and modeled fluid dynamics and flow to better understand its role in cancer progression.
“Bringing engineering and biology together gave me such a dynamic, interdisciplinary experience,” said Hyler. “I learned so much by working with multiple experts across disciplines.”
Her positive learning experience at Virginia Tech had such an impact on Hyler, that she now teaches at the university to create that environment for others. In the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, as adjunct faculty, Hyler will be teaching a course – beginning fall semester 2022 – called Commercialization of Biomedical Engineering Research, which gives undergraduates an overview of the entire process, from innovative ideas to patents and manufacturing.
“My favorite part of the course is the section on small-business start-ups,” said Hyler. “We answer the questions, ‘What is it? How do you start it? How do you pitch it?’ We discuss all the elements for taking an idea out of research and turning it into something.”
Hyler is a living example of living what she teaches: uniquely combining expertise to better understand the complexities of ovarian cancer, then applying that to biotechnology companies to assist other interdisciplinary researchers to find solutions in their own novel studies. Hyler is contributing to solving complex problems through her collaborations, commercialization, and applied knowledge, from start to finish.