ECE Student Perspectives: Eric Cheng, SFU I2I Venture Pitch Winner

Eric Cheng receiving his award at SFU

“Cell sequencing is changing the way we understand the most fundamental unit of life, but there are still many bottlenecks… This was the inspiration for Isolatrix.”

Eric Cheng is a PhD candidate in Electrical Engineering at UBC, supervised by Dr. Karen Cheung. He’s passionate about using cutting edge techniques in microfluidics and machine learning to solve challenging life science problems.

Eric has recently won the ‘Invention to Innovation’ Venture Pitch Competition at SFU in the Product Ready Venture category. At this event, qualifying students pitch their ventures to a panel of judges comprised of angel investors, IP experts and successful entrepreneurs. Eric’s winning initiative, Isolatrix, leverages deep learning to perform highly precise single cell isolation, enabling whole genome sequencing applications.

We spoke to him to learn more about his pioneering initiative, the importance of cell isolation in the biomedical field, and the path that led him to this field.

Congratulations! How do you feel about this award?

I am humbled to have won the 2021 SFU Invention to Innovation (i2I) pitch competition. I went against very talented competition, who each presented groundbreaking, commercially viable innovations.

Over the one-year course of the SFU i2I program, our cohort gained competency and refined and assisted each other, developing a strong sense of camaraderie as we embarked on our scientific-entrepreneurial journeys. I have nothing but respect for my peers, as we’re all aiming to bring important innovations to the green-tech and health-tech markets. It was a great experience to have just shared the stage with them.

What is the topic of your award-winning project?

Eric Cheng presenting at SFU

The innovation I presented at the pitch competition was a unique AI-guided approach for a single cell isolation instrument, which is currently in development in our lab.

In contrast to traditional bulk sequencing, where information from homogenized mixtures of thousands or millions of cells is averaged over a population, our system of single cell analysis captures information from individual cells.

Capturing this information gives us the ability to profile tissue composition, identify rare cell subsets, characterize differentiation trajectories, and measure inter-cellular heterogeneity. Single cell genomics is already transforming our understanding of developmental biology, regenerative medicine, and disease.

Our Isolatrix system has the potential to impact cancer genomics, developmental biology, immunology, and beyond. Facilitating new technologies for enabling single cell analysis allows us to acheive previously unattainable levels of insight.

What is the future of your initiative? How can your project impact the industry?

The Isolatrix aims to democratize single cell sequencing, bringing affordable small-volume, large-scale single cell omics experiments to research labs and beyond.

By creating technologies that can profile genomes, transcriptomes, and epigenomes, our initiative allows for the advancement of the understanding of diseases, such as cancers, by studying individual tumor cells. This can reveal the mechanisms underlying treatment resistance and metastatic progression, and pave the way for improved clinical outcomes for patients.

How did you get started studying this? What draws you to this area?

Our lab has been conducting research on cell handling technologies for a while now. I did my master’s in the same lab at UBC, studying complex hydrodynamics within inkjet systems, and solving challenges for cell handling applications. Through interactions with members of the Genome Sciences Centre, I saw firsthand the impact single cell sequencing is having on life science today. Cell sequencing is changing the way we understand the most fundamental unit of life, but there are still many bottlenecks in the workflow, with gaps in technology in cell preparation. This was the inspiration for the Isolatrix instrument.

By using deep learning to provide a high throughput solution guaranteeing high capture and high single cell purity, we are streamlining the process to enable larger scale solutions which were previously limited through either resources or costs.

What has your career path been like so far? Where do you hope you’ll be in 5 years?

After obtaining my master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at UBC, I spent some time working in the industry before returning for my PhD studies at Electrical and Computer Engineering. In five years, it is our goal to commercialize the Isolatrix instrument and have it integrated into single cell sequencing workflows internationally, making contributions to the advancement of life science.

Learn more about SFU I2I Venture Pitch.