The management team at local start-up 490 BioTech is getting a good deal of “face time” in the Knoxville community and beyond as the company continues to seek funding to commercialize its human and animal cells capable of continuously producing light.
All of the company’s four-person management team has a scientific affiliation with the University of Tennessee (UT). Gary Sayler is founder and Chief Executive Officer. The other executives are Steve Ripp, Chief Operating Officer; Stacey Patterson, Chief Technology Officer; and Dan Close, Chief Scientific Officer.
As Close said in a recent interview with teknovation.biz, “all of us have day jobs as well.” Sayler is Director of the UT Knoxville (UTK) Center for Environmental Biotechnology (CEB). Ripp is Research Associate Professor in CEB, while Patterson is an Assistant Vice President for Research.
Close is a Post-Doctoral student, and many of the company’s presentations are made by him, such as recent ones at a Tennessee Valley Technology Council meeting in late March and the life sciences track at the “Governor’s Innovation Conference” in late April.
The Chicago native earned his undergraduate degree from St. Louis University and returned to the “Windy City” to work in a lab at Northwestern University. Close described it as a “very specialized lab” which limited one of his professional goals – “work more collaboratively.”
He looked around the country and found the opportunity that he sought at UTK working in Sayler’s Center. Close relocated to Knoxville in August 2006 in what he described as a “big move.” He lived two blocks from Chicago’s infamous Wrigley Field. In Knoxville, he discovered grass, trees and the mountains and, more important, a potential lifelong opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people.
Anyone who has been around Close would quickly note two consistent characteristics – his ever-present baseball cap and his effervescent passion for what he and his colleagues are doing.
“When I started in graduate school, I sat down with Gary and Stacey and laid-out a couple of projects,” Close said. Patterson was working in CEB and the UT Research Foundation at the time, not yet moving to the Vice President’s office.
The mammalian bioluminescence project that is the basis of 490 BioTech was a “very high risk, high reward project,” Close said, adding that it had been stated in scientific journals that the research would not work. “Dr. Sayler said that, with enough tinkering and a good strategy, it could work.”
The “it” is a revolutionary approach to developing cell lines that produce light without being treated with a chemical. And the impact is significant in terms of improving drug discovery while also lowering the ultimate cost of drug development.
Close draws an analogy between their work as scientists and those who “hack” computers. “We are taking genetic elements that encode for a specific function and express them in an organism that does not have that function,” he explains.
“Stacey had worked with two of the six genes and demonstrated it (what others said was impossible) could be done,” Close said.
So, he was off to the races, so to speak, “building on the work of Stacey and finding a way to express the remaining four genes to ensure a free-standing system. We were able to successfully modify the remaining four genes and introduce all six genes simultaneously in a human cell.”
Their discovery means that both academic researchers and drug companies will be able to generate more data at a faster and cheaper rate than they can get using traditional approaches.
“Our technology fits into the bottleneck of moving drugs into the initial testing phase,” Close explained. “It allows (researchers) to automate and streamline their processes,” meaning less technical time and fewer animal tests.
The UT Research Foundation holds a patent that is licensed to 490 BioTech.
Close described the company’s current challenge as one of securing funding to take their two products to market by the fourth quarter of 2012. They have been exploring Small Business Innovation Research grants as well as pitching the company to venture capitalists like those at the “Governor’s Innovation Conference.”
In talking with Close, he clearly sees several future paths for himself. He could remain a scientist, he could become an entrepreneur or he could try to do both.
“We’re going to start seeing more scientific entrepreneurial opportunities,” he believes. “It gets lost on a lot of people that we can do something scientifically that you can turn into a company.”
Close is 31 years old, working seven days a week with “hours that would kill a normal man.”
“It’s a great project,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky making things glow that shouldn’t glow.”
Even his mother has embraced his work, saying, “Wow, everyone’s going to have a glowing mouse.”