KC Area Startup Ronawk Has an Innovation That Could Change Biotech

KC Area Startup Ronawk Has an Innovation That Could Change Biotech

The story of Overland Park, Kansas-based biotechnology startup Ronawk began almost a decade ago when A.J. Mellott and Heather Decker found themselves held back by the tedious process of culturing cells manually.   

“I got really frustrated with the process, and in that frustration, I had this sort of eureka moment of, ‘If I’m struggling with this, there’s got to be thousands of other people that have to do this process manually,’” Mellott says. “That got me thinking that there must be a better way to culture cells more naturally and more efficiently that could help for all the downstream research being done. And so that’s where it started.”  

A.J. Mellott, CEO and co-founder of Ronawk.

This eventually sparked the idea of a more natural and efficient way to culture cells for downstream research in regenerative medicine, cancer and other diseases.   

The breakthrough came in the form of an expandable substrate also referred to as “Bio-Blocks.” These puzzle-piece-like blocks allow cells to grow without the need for sub-culturing (we’ll explain this in a bit), enabling scientists to achieve higher quality and contamination-free cell cultures.  

“When cells need more room to grow, we add our substrate on, and they’re called Bio-Blocks. They look like little jigsaw puzzle pieces, and you literally connect them together like Lego blocks,” Mellott says. “With cells, what tends to happen when you grow a petri dish is you run out of room, and then you have to dissociate them—dilute them down and spread them between more petri dishes—and they really don’t like that. That’s known as sub-culturing, and it doesn’t happen in your body. With our technology, we never have to do that. We just add on blocks, and they just keep multiplying.”  

After devising these blocks, Mellott and Decker left their jobs at University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Kansas, respectively in February 2019 to further pursue the idea.  

One striking feature of Ronawk’s technology is its versatility, catering to various cell types related to tissue research. “Our product works with pretty much any adherent cell type,” Mellott says. “We are not anchored to one disease state or one research area.”  

Tapping into KC’s Resources for Tech Entrepreneurs  

Since launching in 2019, Ronawk has taken advantage of many of the resources that Kansas City offers to tech startups, including applying for Digital Sandbox KC.   

Prior to applying for Sandbox, the company took part in the NSF I Corps program out of Wichita State University. “That program is what really got us ready for our Digital Sandbox KC application and the ultimate award,” Mellott says.  

In addition to receiving early-stage project funding from Digital Sandbox KC, Mellott says he also received help and mentorship from other Kansas City resources including UMKC E-Scholars and Pipeline Entrepreneurs.  

“Kansas City really has some pretty spectacular programs,” Mellott says. “And the really cool thing that has happened in the last few years is there’s this alignment happening between all these programs, where they are talking with each other and working together. It makes it a little easier to guide first-time entrepreneurs.”   

Your startup could be the next to receive expert advice and up to $20,000 in project development funding from Digital Sandbox KC. Apply today!

$6.5M Series A to expand workforce and build new lab 

In August 2023, Ronawk announced the successful completion of a $6.5 million Series A funding round.  

The company used the funding to expand its team, construct a new lab in Overland Park and provide financial support to its subsidiary, STELL, a contract research organization that was established by Ronawk in 2023. 

“STELL’s purpose is to provide research services to other entrepreneurs and biotech companies in the area that may not have easy access to some of the types of research services we offer,” Mellott says. “It allows us to offer those services and work with the community, while still showcasing our technology and helping others to grow their businesses that have different biotech aspirations.”  

Today and looking forward 

With 30 active pilot projects and engagement with over 120 companies and academic institutions over the past four years, Ronawk has been steadily expanding its footprint. The company has been involved in diverse projects, ranging from vaccine development to addressing hearing loss and neuromuscular diseases.  

“Right now, we’re in the middle of doing our final product validation. And then the next milestone is really all about scaling,” Mellott says. “We just want to make sure that we’ve done things right before we move to that next milestone, where we’re ready to go out and scale.”  

The company has 15 employees, with about two-thirds being scientists in the lab, and the other third working in the business and administrative section.  

“I think a big part of what makes Ronawk so special has been the team that we’ve built, and the support from Kansas City, really making us all feel welcome,” Mellott says. “The support we get from the entrepreneurial community has contributed significantly to the success and growth of our company.”  

Ronawk’s journey is a testament to the power of innovation and collaboration within Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. From revolutionizing cell culture technology to nurturing new businesses through STELL, Ronawk continues to make significant contributions to scientific research and community development. 

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