A Q&A with César de la Fuente: Inaugural NEMO Prize Recipient

César de la Fuente highlights his experience over the past year after receiving the 2020 NEMO Prize

By Hannah Spector

César de la Fuente is a University of Pennsylvania presidential assistant professor and leader of the Machine Biology Group. He has appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. In June 2020, de la Fuente was selected as the first recipient of the annual Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize. Made possible by a generous gift from Ofer Nemirovsky, EE’79, W’79, PAR’21, the NEMO Prize is focused on supporting early-stage ideas at the intersection of engineering and medicine. Awardees receive $80,000 to support their project.

This miniature, portable version of a rapid COVID-19 test is compatible with smart devices and can detect SARS-CoV-2 within four minutes. (Image: Courtesy of César de la Fuente)

What is your NEMO-funded project?

“The project is a low-cost, rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19. Specifically, we developed a technology called electrochemistry, which allows you to essentially transform the chemical information that is derived when the virus binds to a receptor into a signal that we can detect very easily. It’s also cellphone compatible, so you can get a readout in 4 minutes. All of the prototypes we have built so far cost less than $5.”

“The prize gives you the freedom to explore a new idea, so be adventurous — this mindset aligns well with the spirit of NEMO.”

How did it evolve in the past year?

“We started with one prototype and now have three entirely different prototypes for the test. Two use electrochemistry, and we are now working on a new technology that uses calorimetry. With calorimetry, when the cotton swabs are exposed to the virus, they change color. This means users are able to see if they’re affected by a virus through a simple color change, making it more of a visual detection method.”

How has the NEMO prize helped accelerate your project?

“The NEMO Prize gave us the funding we needed to get started. We were able to buy equipment and reagents needed to experiment with the ideas that we had. We’ve been able to develop the three prototypes in a short amount of time using new technologies. This was initially enabled by the NEMO prize because it allowed us to get our project off the ground and fund the implementation of our ideas.”

How did the NEMO Prize impact your ability to leverage other resources on campus within the research and entrepreneurship ecosystem?

“NEMO acted as a connector to more easily access the innovative ecosystem of Penn. Our reach has extended into Wharton and Penn Dental. Penn Health-Tech has acted as a connection hub, and involvement with the center exposed the project to a broader audience and wider sphere of influence.”

“This is a great opportunity to propose something even a little crazy that you want to try out.”

What’s next for the project?

“We are in the process of publishing our findings now. The first paper was accepted and published last week and we have several more in the pipeline. We’re focusing on this for now, publishing our work and continuing to refine our prototypes. This includes lowering the cost and lessening the detection time even more.”

What do you wish to share with those considering applying this year?

“Focus on the intersection of medicine and engineering — I think this is the present and future of innovation. Be creative at this intersection and have fun with your proposal. This is a great opportunity to propose something even a little crazy that you want to try out. The prize gives you the freedom to explore a new idea, so be adventurous — this mindset aligns well with the spirit of NEMO.”

The deadline to apply to the 2021 Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity (NEMO) Prize is Tuesday, June 1st at 5:00pm. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the webpage, or email htec@pennmedicine.upenn.edu at any time.

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