Terrific to see CytonomeST’s CSO Lydia Villa-Komaroff win a 2011 WEST Leadership Awardearlier this summer. CytonomeST is a Boston-area startup developing a clinical-grade, optical, microfluidic cell sorter.
On the WEST site I ran across this interview with Dr. Villa-Komaroff where she discusses her time at CytonomeST, and many other aspects of her career. At the end of the interview she gives hints of the startup’s upcoming launch: “The accomplishment that is just on the horizon – launching CytonomeST’s cell sorter for clinical use – is what I am most proud of today. It feels good to have kept this company alive and to be so close to seeing everything come together successfully.”
Below are a few excerpts — check out the interview for more, including advice for those interested in careers bridging science/business. Inspiring!
Can you tell me about Cytonome, your role as CSO there and the technology that it is developing?
It’s so exciting to be at CytonomeST. We are developing a cell sorting device using microfluidic chips with parallel microfluidic channels, to get high throughput cell sorting. This will enable separation of human donor cells for bone marrow transplantation, treatment of autoimmune diseases and even conditions such as heart failure.
I was CEO at Cytonome, but upon formation of a partnership that formed CytonomeST, I was able to go back to the role of CSO and focus on the science. Once the engineering of the device is done, I will visit the major medical centers and show people how CytonomeSt’s technology can help them use cell sorting in a clinical setting. For example, when a patient goes in for a bone marrow transplant today, it is very difficult for investigators to give patients precisely defined cell types from the complex mix of cells in the bone marrow. There is not a lot of manipulation of the transplant cells during the process as it currently occurs, because it is very difficult to do. Cytonome’s device will allow sorting of donor cells in a way that might prevent graft vs. host disease, which is a common complication of bone marrow transplantation whereby immune cells recognize the recipient cells as foreign and mount an attack. This is just one area where we believe our product will have a significant impact.
For many people, the fear of start-up costs or not being able to raise enough money, deters them from pursuing entrepreneurial ventures. How did you raise money as a start-up? Are there certain sources of financing that have proven to be most effective to you over the years?
Sometimes funding can come from places where you least expect it, so it’s important to keep an open mind. For Cytonome, it was very difficult to get VC funding during the economic downturn and we eventually found funding by forming what at first glance is an unlikely partnership. We formed a joint venture with an agricultural firm, and it has been a wonderful experience. The investment enabled the company to stay on track; and at least as important, the partnership brought us our current CEO, John Sharpe, an optical physicist with extensive experience in building cell sorters, who is absolutely tailor-made for CytonomeST. John’s knowledge, experience, and leadership skills allowed me to go from CEO back to CSO – and back to the science.
As we talked to potential funders there was a great deal of excitement about Cytonome’s technology, the potential market, and the business model. But convincing someone actually to give you money because you have a good disruptive innovation ultimately is a very difficult. Remember – everyone out there is making a similar argument, and truly disruptive technologies are few and far between.
At the end of the day you just have to grit your teeth, get out into the world, and find some money so you can prove the value of the technology before the company runs dry. No money, no company. Having a viable product is only the beginning.