This is a guest post by Ron Orlando, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Chemistry at the University of Georgia. (full bio below).
I started my first company—BioInquire—not because I had a burning desire to become an entrepreneur, but because I wanted to solve a problem. My laboratory at University of Georgia specializes in proteomics and mass spectrometry. About five years ago, now, we were working with Rick Tarleton here at UGA, to characterize the changes associated with Chagas disease. Before he invested postdoc time and money in characterizing the potential protein targets we identified, he wanted to know how certain we were that each was real.
We ended up developing a method and writing software to take our proteomic data and convert it into a protein false discovery rate—a method that is widely used today. So, we wrote these tools in Perl and were giving them away for free like good academics: “Here’s the readme.doc file and good luck!”
But, I was concerned that even my laboratory would lose the ability to use the software if the developer quit. So, I hired a computer scientist to develop a graphical user interface, which meant you could at least sit at your Windows-based machine and ask questions of the data.
Our software had been downloaded by something like 50 laboratories when I met a colleague who alerted me to the fact that we did not have a license. What if these folks who used our program didn’t like the results and decided to sue us? Returning to Georgia, I contacted our tech transfer office. They were as concerned with the fact that we were giving away a valuable product and convinced us to start a company.
It turns out that the State of Georgia has a few resources to help entrepreneurs. We got a $25,000 grant to do a market survey which revealed a niche market untapped by the big companies. We got another $25,000 to take what we had and write it to run on Windows and Mac PCs, and to write a help manual. And then we went after a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant, which is specifically designed to take technology developed at a university into the commercial sector. With an STTR, most of us who were involved in developing the software would be able to retain our university affiliations. We only needed one full-time employee, and that decision essentially came down to whose health insurance was cheapest!
Magically, we got the STTR grant and a year later, we sold our first product at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry annual meeting for $7,000. Another year and another larger STTR grant later, we were selling a few dozen copies and ultimately we were able to sell the company to NuSep. Then I started another company, which is still too new to write about.
A few years ago, I was invited to an NIH resource meeting in which someone from the old National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) started talking in broad terms about the need to take NIH-funded academic research and translate them into products. She mentioned BioInquire as one of the success stories. Suddenly it all clicked for me. I am actually doing translational research. And while NIH funding rates for basic research is flat-lining or decreasing, the money for SBIR is trending the other way.
Academics tend to think that there is something philosophically wrong with trying to make money out of science. But, as our original software problem illustrates, “free” is not always cheap or effective. If you aren’t paying a company for software that is up-to-date and compatible with the latest machines, you are paying someone to work in your laboratory to maintain it. There are, in fact, several computers in my laboratory that can’t die without the simultaneous deaths of unique research tools. Translation is not just about exporting technology developed in academia, but about improving the process and progress of science.
Dr. Ron Orlando is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He has over twenty-five years’ experience with the analysis of biological molecules with mass spectrometry. He specializes in the analysis of proteins and their post-translational modifications, particularly glycosylation. Dr. Orlando has authored or co-authored over 100 publications in peer reviewed journals; routinely serves on National Institutes of Health review panels; presented over 100 invited lectures on protein analysis with mass spectrometry.