Lessons I learned from commercializing my postdoctoral research project — Part 2

March 26, 2011

This is the second installment written by Dr. Tanya Kanigan about her experiences co-founding BioTrove, a startup based on the nanovolume array technology she and others invented at MIT (click here for part 1). BioTrove was acquired by Life Technologies in December 2009, and Tanya is now establishing her own consulting practice, Proof of Market, to help entrepreneurs and business leaders commercialize innovative technologies and services.

 

 

4. Markets are not static

When we founded BioTrove in the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical industry revenues were soaring and high throughput screening was at the height of fashion. Drug discovery technology companies were commanding impressive terms from their pharma partners. (For example, in 2001 Vertex Pharmaceuticals purchased Aurora Biosciences for nearly six hundred million dollars in stock.) However, by the time we ourselves were negotiating screening contracts with big pharma, they were saturated and somewhat disillusioned with high throughput screening technologies. For many reasons, the market opportunity was no longer as attractive as the one we had first planned to capitalize on a few years earlier.

 

Fortunately the human genome had just been sequenced, and we were able to redeploy our through-hole array platform as a nanoPCR array and capitalize on the growing genomics market. To lead our charge, we hired genomics industry veteran Bob Ellis, who was known to say “aim for where the puck is going to be.” This hockey metaphor continues to rings true for me, and not just because I am originally from Canada.

 

5. Focus on developing a single application with a big market

BioTrove’s through-hole array technology had the potential to enable many different types of low volume chemical reactions. I often referred to it as a “nanotiter plate” and described it as a high density, ultralow volume version a microtiter plate. Indeed, work done at MIT and BioTrove demonstrated numerous uses of the arrays including cell-based assays, homogeneous and inhomogeneous drug discovery assays, protein crystallization, antibody discovery, compound storage, and even combinatorial chemical synthesis. All of these initially seemed like potential commercial applications for BioTrove’s array technology, perhaps even separate businesses.

 

Around the time we were launching BioTrove, I became aware of another startup called Illumina that was developing an array-type technology licensed from Tufts University. I wondered what all the excitement was, given that their approach required a great deal of development to enable just one single type of reaction—nucleic acid analysis. (If only I knew then what I know now!)

 

As we explored different applications of our through-hole array technology at BioTrove, we came to appreciate the costs of customization. For example, our nanovolume reagent loading systems were sensitive to small changes in surface tension and wetting properties of the solutions we loaded into the through-holes. Thus each new application and assay generally required us to re-optimize multiple protocols and instrument settings.

 

In parallel, the market for high throughput screening technologies was cooling. Serving the pharmaceutical drug discovery market and thus supporting many different high throughput screening assays, was looking less and less attractive.

 

By 2003 we had refocused our technology commercialization efforts on the genomics market and, like Illumina, first entered the market with a SNP genotyping product.

 

6. The purpose of a starting a business is ultimately to sell stuff. Accept this and get on board… the sooner the better.

In the early days of BioTrove, and despite my role in cofounding the company, I largely saw myself as a scientist, and my work at BioTrove to be a continuation of the project I had begun at MIT. I avoided participating in business discussions, considering it a distraction from my more important work in the lab; whereas my cofounder, Colin Brenan, had signed on to be our first CEO and was rapidly climbing the learning curve. Our different vantage points led to a couple somewhat-heated arguments between us that I now believe could have been avoided if I had been more engaged in business discussions, especially with potential customers and business partners.

 

Over the nearly ten years I spent at BioTrove, my primary focus shifted from technology development to strategy and business development. I began to interact regularly with potential customers and occasionally accompanied members of the sale team on calls. From this, I found that not only was I able to help generate sales, but I gained a clearer understanding of the “business realities” my company and technology were facing, and an appreciation for the many non-technical challenges of bringing a new technology to the marketplace.

A fashionable mantra for software startups is “everybody sells,” and I would encourage young life science tools companies to consider adopting this as well.

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