Lessons I learned from commercializing my postdoctoral research project — Part 1

This post is written by Dr. Tanya Kanigan, speaker at the March 2011 FluidicMEMS event. Tanya is originally from western Canada and received her PhD in Physical Chemistry from McGill University in Montreal. Afterwards she joined the MIT Bioinstrumentation Laboratory directed by Professor Ian Hunter as a postdoctoral research fellow. There Tanya worked on conducting polymer actuators, microneedle glucose sensors and a novel through-hole microarray technology for high throughput biological and chemical analysis. With Colin Brenan, Professor Hunter and two other MIT researchers, she cofounded a venture-backed startup called BioTrove which then licensed the through-hole array technology from MIT. BioTrove successfully commercialized the through-hole technology for genomic analysis under the trade name OpenArray before being acquired by Life Technologies in December 2009.

At BioTrove, Tanya was involved in multiple technical, managerial and operational aspects of launching and growing an innovation-driven organization. As Director of Array Technology she led development of core technologies—through-hole arrays, optical readout systems, and nanovolume fluidic loading methods. She also played a key role in evaluating and developing opportunities for BioTrove’s proprietary microtechnologies in new markets, including in vitro diagnostics. Tanya left BioTrove when it was acquired by Life Technologies in December 2009 and is currently establishing her own consulting practice, Proof of Market, to help entrepreneurs and business leaders commercialize highly innovative technologies and services.

1. Look to potential customers as early strategic partners and investors

Although BioTrove was an MIT spin-out—in that all five founders and one of our two technology platforms came together at MIT—the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, also played a key role in launching our company. Pfizer sponsored the early development of an ultra high throughput mass spectrometry screening system that was eventually commercialized by BioTrove under the RapidFire trademark. After the founding team successfully demonstrated proof of concept, Pfizer contracted us to build them a system for use in Pfizer facilities and made a strategic investment in our startup. In addition, they agreed to rent us space for two years in their new research facility overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge. Besides gaining quick access to first class lab space at below market rates, this arrangement provided BioTrove with ready access to Pfizer scientists, our first customers. Thus Pfizer invested in BioTrove in many different ways to ensure the collaboration was a success—and this later paid out for both parties.

2. Do not be afraid to abandon a good technology in order to solve a better problem

The first high throughput screening instrument BioTrove built for Pfizer was referred to internally as “The Tape Machine.” As the name suggests, its central element was a long conveyer belt onto which droplets of assay reagents were deposited by banks of robot controlled syringes and then transported through an incubation loop and past an inline fluorescence detection system. Although our Pfizer sponsors were suitably impressed with our early prototype, they were also quick to point out that the system would have to compete with other fluorescent-based high throughput screening systems already available or in late stage commercial development. What they really, really wanted was to speed up and automate mass-spectrometry based chemical detection for label-free compound library screening. They wanted a mass spec plate reader.

We founders had a very limited knowledge of mass spectrometry, but we told Pfizer we could build it anyways. Afterwards we were fortunate to hire an excellent team of scientists and engineers, who didn’t know much about mass spec either, but nevertheless successfully developed a rapid inline solid phase extraction system and integrated it with a triple-quad mass spectrometer. After the first screening system was delivered to Pfizer, the “Tape” was removed and subsequent systems withdrew samples directly from assay microplates. The technology eventually evolved into RapidFire screening system that is now used by virtually all major pharmaceutical companies, and that was recently acquired by Agilent.

Our original technology (i.e., The Tape Machine) helped our startup attract a pharma sponsor and build a relationship with them. But in the long run, BioTrove’s commercial success drug discovery technology came from learning about a compelling unmet market need from our pharma partner, and then developing an entirely different technology to address it.

3. Don’t tell potential customers your new technology is “simple” or “easy” because
(a) then they won’t want to pay you a lot of money for it, and
(b) you are most likely wrong.

The second technology platform that BioTrove developed and commercialized was an array of 3072 through-holes, each one capable of performing a unique PCR analysis of nucleic acids in any isolated 33 nanoliter droplet. The arrays and associated instrumentation are now sold by the Applied Biosystems division of Life Technologies under the trademark OpenArray for genotyping, gene expression, and digital PCR.

The through-hole array technology itself originated in the MIT BioInstrumentation Laboratory directed by Professor Ian Hunter. It was one of several projects I worked on as a postdoctoral fellow in Professor Hunter’s lab in the late 1990’s. After launching BioTrove, my cofounders and I decided to license the through-hole technology from MIT and develop it alongside our high throughput mass spectrometry platform.

While still at MIT and aided by several other BioInstrumentation Lab members, I had demonstrated how simple chemical reactions and select bioassays could be performed in through-hole arrays. Full of optimism stemming from a successful proof of concept, I remarked on how “easy” this nanovolume chemistry was in one of the first presentations I gave on the through-hole array technology for BioTrove. Our then VP of Business Development, Robert Hess, later pulled me aside and warned me that by calling the technology “easy,” I would give my audience the impression that it would also be cheap.

With time I came to appreciate the second reason that I was wrong to call the technology “easy,” for it took several years of further invention, research and development (and tens of millions of dollars in venture funding) before we delivered through-hole array products to the marketplace.

Stay tuned for Part 2…!

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