Kiwi start-up to target drug cheats in sport with innovative technology

Ojas Mahapatra and Prof Alison Heather image

InstuGen CEO Ojas Mahapatra and Professor Alison Heather.

The world of drug-cheating in sports is set for major disruption with the formation of InsituGen, a start-up company which will supply anabolic drug testing kits developed at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

InsituGen is built on a collaboration comprising deep-tech investor Pacific Channel, and anabolic drug-detection technology created by Professor Alison Heather of the University of Otago. The company will equip established drug screening operators with kits which detect designer anabolics that current technology is not able to identify.

“At the moment existing tests only catch cheats who use recognised substances however cheats are able to go un-detected if they use substances that have been chemically altered – the fingerprint of the drug isn’t recognised. Our test quickly identifies any form of anabolic steroid in an athlete’s system, even if it is an unknown compound. No other test can do this,” Professor Heather says.

InsituGen’s unique testing method has been a focus for Professor Heather at the University of Otago’s Department of Physiology over the last 6 years. Her concept was advanced by Otago Innovation Limited – a University of Otago company which develops and commercialises intellectual property developed out of the University.

“Working alongside Pacific Channel and Professor Heather, we’ve brought her cutting-edge scientific concept to the point where it is ‘commercialisation ready’, and now attracting a number of other investors. It is a very exciting time, and we look forward to the positive influence InsituGen will have in the world of sport,” says Otago Innovation CEO David Christensen.

Dr Ojas Mahapatra, CEO of InsituGen says “Our investors include well-established companies such as New Zealand’s early-stage, deep-tech investment company Pacific Channel, leading financial services company Booster and New Zealand Growth Capital Partners. Together they have invested the $1.6M of start-up funding required to begin commercialising this technology.

“InsituGen’s immediate pathway lies in the horse racing industry, with commercial testing in New Zealand and Australia before supplying official operators come the 2021 autumn and spring carnivals. The technology is then planned to be diversified to a human kit, with potential for InsituGen to be supplying major sporting codes as early as 2022.”

Professor Heather adds “In addition to identifying anabolic drugs used to create an illegal advantage, InsituGen’s kits can provide sporting organisations peace of mind when choosing nutritional supplements. Not only does the technology provide athletes, coaches, trainers and administrators with confidence that what they’re taking is legal and won’t lead to a surprising and potentially career-ending positive result for an anabolic, it provides assurance that they’re not inadvertently taking something that is harmful and unsafe to their body.”

Looking beyond sports, Professor Heather is examining the potential for the technology to be used in a medical application to monitor hormone levels. This could potentially assist the process of regulating dosage of hormone inhibitors used in certain hormone sensitive cancers, including breast cancer.

About InsituGen

Professor Heather will commit as full-time Chief Scientist for InsituGen. Dr Ojas Mahapatra will be the company’s inaugural CEO. Dr Gary Pace, Chairman of Pacific Channel, has been appointed Executive Chairman, bringing a wealth of experience from early-stage investment, serial entrepreneurship, and senior roles in life sciences ventures in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Dr Roland Toder, a Partner at Pacific Channel’s investment arm provides significant international business development experience as Director. David Christensen, CEO of Otago Innovation completes the start-up’s board.

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