Mundipharma is leveraging its network of independent companies to invigorate the pain relief and addiction treatment market with the acquisition of a family of patents for opioid substitutes. See my OBR Newsflash for more details.
Earlier this month my alma mater, the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, posted “2013: A Year of Milestones” and two of the twelve milestones involved my undergraduate research advisors. My “hey I know those guys” excitement was abruptly replaced with a sense of loss. I had been given a golden opportunity in college to form a relationship with these two, but lacked the foresight to take advantage.
In my final two years of undergrad I struggled with the same question that all undergrads face, “What am I going to do?” The standard plan amongst my peers was to enter the sexy world of oil refining and specialty chemicals manufacturing and make lots of money to taunt our <insert esoteric liberal arts field> majoring friends with as they moved home with mom and dad. However, upon experiencing the specialty chemical manufacturing industry first hand as a summer intern with Albemarle, I started to question the plan and went back to school ready to give a life of research a try. (First aside: a life of research is esoteric and may lead to moving home with mom and dad too. Second aside: esoteric liberal arts majors, your network will be your best hope to avoid moving home!)
The two labs I found my way into were, first, the lab of Dr C. Grant Willson where I completed a year of research on base quenchers in semiconductor photoresist materials for my Plan II honors thesis, and second, the lab of Dr Nicholas Peppas where my research on porous polymer biomaterials became my senior engineering project. Both of these renowned researchers have won a dizzying number of awards and have produced an insane body of research, but, most importantly, they are both exemplary mentors. Looking back, through the eyes of a PhD, the amount of respect their graduate students had, and routinely expressed, for these two men is rare in the academic research. How did I take advantage of these priceless opportunities? I didn’t, not at all.
I saw Dr Willson frequently and would freeze and panic every time. I was completely incapable of forming a relationship. Back then even the most approachable faculty members were intimidating figures of genius and authority and who was I to waste their time? In addition to the fear, part of it could have been the arrogance of youth (I don’t need anyone’s help to succeed), and part of it could have been laziness (it’s hard and I don’t have time to invest in this right now), but whatever the reasons, I did nothing to foster relationships and, when I left the labs, I did nothing to maintain the connections.
Equally riveting image from my senior project. There should be holes. There are no holes.
In 2013, Dr Willson was awarded the Japan Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and Dr Peppas was honored with the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) highest award, the Excellence in Engineering Education Award. When I saw these announcements I was filled with pride for having been briefly associated with both these individuals, but the pride was quickly replaced with great regret at having missed my opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with either one.
The moral, undergraduates, is build your network now! Take off the blinders of youth and look around, overcome any arrogance, any laziness, and be bold. Soon you will want to enter the work force or graduate school and both will require letters of recommendation. Who better to write them than faculty who can cite specific examples of your exceptional talent? Once at work or in graduate school, mentorship will instantly become crucial to your career. Faculty, postdocs, and graduate students want to help you, they want to form relationships with you, and they want you to succeed. It gets lonely holding office hours with yourself. I get excited every time I hear from one of the undergraduates I mentored at Boston College and would go above and beyond to help them succeed. Learn from my mistakes and go forth and conquer!
(This blog post was first published on Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable Review, January 14, 2014)
Move aside 23andMe: why spend $99 for a partial genetic profile of currently available disease-associated genes if $1,000 buys your entire genome? On January 14th Illumina, Inc. announced they have created a system to sequence an entire human genome for $1,000. The $1,000 genome has been the carrot on a stick for the DNA sequencing industry for more than a decade and Illumina’s CEO, Jay Flatley, likens the achievement to the breaking of the sound barrier in this statement in the company’s press release:
“With the HiSeq X Ten, we’re delivering the $1,000 genome, reshaping the economics and scale of human genome sequencing, and redefining the possibilities for population-level studies in shaping the future of healthcare. The ability to explore the human genome on this scale will bring the study of cancer and complex diseases to a new level. Breaking the “sound barrier” of human genetics not only pushes us through a psychological milestone, it enables projects of unprecedented scale. We are excited to see what lies on the other side.”
In less than a decade, the price of genome sequencing has gone from $250,000 to $1,000. At this rate, DNA sequencing technology is outpacing Moore’s Law, the governing idea in computer processing that transistor number and, thus, speed double every two years. The breakthrough machine, called HiSeq X Ten, is actually a collection of ten machines with a price tag of $10 million. The collaborative machines can produce “factory scale” sequencing, promising tens of thousands of human genomes per year per lab. The HiSeq X Ten improves upon the currently available HiSeq® 2500 and remains based on Illumina SBS technology. To attain the increase in throughput, Illumina engineered patterned flow cells with billions of nanowells and developed novel, speedier chemistry. This results in a 10X increase in throughput over the HiSeq® 2500.
With the January 14th announcement, Illumina trumped competitors like Pacific Biosciences and Life Technologies, which are also developing faster and cheaper sequencing technologies. Illumina claims the win by calculating the $1,000 per genome cost including instrument depreciation, DNA extraction, library preparation, and estimated labor. This estimation has met with some skepticism but Mick Watson provides a quick math check in a recent blog post that supports Illumina’s assertion.
With a $10 million price tag, the system itself remains out of reach for most institutions, but Macrogen in Seoul, South Korea; The Harvard-MIT Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA; and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia have already purchased systems. The challenge now falls on biomedical researchers to effectively manage the heaps of data that will be generated and to efficiently apply the data to tangible disease research. Foundation Medicine is already planning to use HiSeq X Ten in oncology studies to develop better cancer treatments and Regeneron has partnered with Geisinger Health System to apply the data to improved drug discovery. In general, the implications of a $1,000 genome on the trend toward personalized medicine is generating excitement across the life science industry. Eric Lander, director of The Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, summarized the impact of this technology with, “Over the next few years, we have an opportunity to learn as much about the genetics of human disease as we have learned in the history of medicine.”
Fortunately for companies like 23andMe, the $1,000 genome for the consumer is still some time in the future once provider mark-up and the cost of external sequence analysis and interpretation are taken into account. However, with the current pace of advancement the individual consumer will not have to wait long.
Historically, a PhD biologist leaving academia for industry was expected to send their resume to the large pharmaceutical companies and wait for the storied labs of Merck or Pfizer to decide they needed an expert in their niche field. Today this option is going the way of the dinosaurs as big pharma opts to outsource their discovery research to smaller, external labs and to reallocate their research dollars to innovation hubs. These centers, strategically positioned in technology hotbeds like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Shanghai, seek to identify research, both early- and late-stage, for licensing or acquisition. Most recently Merck announced their intention to followed Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline down this path as covered in my January 10th Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable Newsflash here.
Instead of lamenting the loss of the behemoth pharmaceutical research machine, we should rejoice in the shifting focus to smaller startups that offer PhD scientists more research freedom and allow young scientists to take an active role in the future of the organization; making them more than a pipetting, replaceable cog tethered to a lab bench. However, this paradigm shift to entrepreneurship does come with the disadvantages of lower salaries and less job security, but the opportunities to grow laterally and to find research that engenders passion by choosing from the diverse startup landscape compensates for these losses. Of course the issue of low funding for discovery stage biotech entrepreneurs remains, but perhaps continued change at the top of the foodchain will lead to increased support for early-stage ideas. It is an exciting time in biotech and an exciting time to be a scientist.
Every entrepreneur needs an idea and the Stanford Office of Technology and Licensing (OTL) has hundreds of patented, but unlicensed, ideas waiting to be commercialized and marketed. It is an entrepreneur’s dream and pitifully underutilized.
I learned of this resource when I began another consulting project for Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) to develop a commercialization plan for a positioning apparatus with lockable joints (Patent US 20110015647A1). Videos of this unlicensed, patented device are available here.
Over 12 weeks we developed a list of potential applications, validated the applications by interviewing key opinion leaders and potential users, conducted a preliminary competitor and market analysis, and developed a plan for commercialization for the inventors including two potential licensees, one from the maker community and another from a biodevice startup. The greatest challenge was to identify and engage potential users. Traditional channels to key opinion leaders in academia and industry, such as networked introductions and cold emails, tended to be slow and yielded modest returns. In response, we turned to social media and began posting about the project on Twitter and Facebook and reaching out to specific communities through local group networks like Meetup. By accessing a large audience quickly, we increased the speed of response and garnered the input of several future users. Two potential licensees came through social media as well.
Though our team did not parlay this specific device into a company, the OTL has an abundance of other options. To find ideas ripe for commercialization, use OTL’s Tech Finder site. It requires registration but is open to anyone. If you are part of the Stanford community and interested in going through a process similar to the OBR project, consider joining an Innovation Farm (iFarm) Team. The iFarm program starts biannually in February and September, lasts about six months, and includes mentoring and seminars by experts in patent law, entrepreneurship, and management. OTL Senior Associate, Luis Mejia, describes the program in his iFarm introduction here. In his introduction, Mejia highlights the greater benefits of licensing an OTL patent: “Products are made, royalties then are generated and get paid back to the university and…about two-thirds of the net revenues go back to supporting the research and education mission of the university.”