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November 03, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Dan Close describes how SBIR grants aided the methodical growth of 490 BioTech

“2020 has been a very successful year in the lab for 490 BioTech,” Dan Close says.

He’s the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for the company that has strong ties to the University of Tennessee and captured the top prize as determined by the judges during Knoxville’s recent “Startup Day” celebration. The win brought $7,000 to the roughly 10-year old company.

For 490 BioTech, it’s been a methodical, self-paced process that has largely relied on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants rather than outside investment capital. Close says that approach was intentional to ensure that the team could do it the way researchers wanted rather than the way outside investors might push them, requiring sacrifices.

“SBIRs allowed us to optimize every aspect of our product,” he explains, noting that the mindset of federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is different from venture capital. “They (SBIRs) give you a logical timeframe to do as much good as possible and go the extra mile.”

490 BioTech’s current SBIR – its fourth Phase II from NIH and seventh Phase I SBIR or STTR overall – will provide financial runway through June 2021, something very important in terms of long-term viability of the company.

“What we are trying to do is reinvent drug discovery,” Close explains. “We set out to do something incredible, and that takes time.”

Now, 490 BioTech is on the cusp of rolling out its first commercial product as part of a strategy to develop a full range of products. That tenacity and persistence – Close describes it as “a really long journey (that) can get frustrating at times” – is what the “Startup Day” judges recognized and rewarded.

“Over the last two years, we have addressed customer feedback to get ready for the market,” Close explained, noting the number one request was for the cell lines to be brighter. The request came from both companies doing in vitro (drug discovery) and in vivo (pre-clinical) work.

In the case of the former, 490 BioTech’s continuously bioluminescent cells are perfect for high throughput applications where the use of a luciferin-requiring cell line would be cost prohibitive or where sample destruction would prevent repetitive data acquisition. For in vivo imaging, the 490 BioTech cell lines can be imaged through tissue, allowing researchers to perform small animal studies without the repeated needle sticks required from luciferin-induced systems.

“Our newest version is 1000 times brighter than what first went out in Beta in 2015,” Close says. “The most exciting result is the technology is so bright you can actually see glowing cells with the naked eye and even take a picture of them with your cellphone.”

In fact, those improvements have resulted in a new unofficial motto for 490 BioTech: “See the light.” In addition, the company also responded to feedback that earlier iterations were too complex compared to offerings from competitors.

“Now, it’s a one-step procedure,” Close says, adding that “the cells can glow for a week, not just for a few seconds to minutes, which is the case with the competitors’ products after a multi-step process.

The CSO divides the company’s evolution into a series of stages. From 2010 to 2012, it was about spinning-out of an academic mindset with the official launch of 490 BioTech occurring on July 11, 2011. Between 2012 and 2015, the focus was on developing the Beta product for use. The next two years involved securing feedback and making tweaks as people used the Beta version. Since 2017, the team has fixed all the problems identified through the Beta tests and is now prepared to launch.

With the product ready for primetime, Close says the team has established several key milestones. The first is to hire a Chief Executive Officer by the end of 2020. All of 2021 will be devoted to marketing and customer acquisition with 2022 being the time when significant market penetration occurs.

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