Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Shaun Gleason and Mike Paulus were on different research teams that competed in 1998 for Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funding to advance work in cross-disciplinary mammalian genomics research.
“Mike’s team proposed an X-Ray modality, ours proposed an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) approach,” Gleason said in a recent interview with teknovation.biz. The two modalities are very complimentary, but only one could move forward, and in the end, Paulus’ proposal was selected.
That competition led to a 14-year collaboration that has encompassed the creation of a new company, a subsequent stint on entrepreneurial leave, the successful sale of their start-up, and a renewed collaboration back at ORNL where each plays a strategic role in advancing lab research and commercialization.
Paulus is Director of Technology Transfer, while Gleason serves as the Director of Institutional Planning.
“We had not worked together much,” Paulus said of the 1998 competition even though they were in the same ORNL division. In spite of this fact, the duo quickly decided to team-up after the LDRD grant was awarded.
“Mike did the hardware, data acquisition and detectors,” Gleason explained. “I did the image reconstruction and image analysis.”
“It was a perfect situation,” Paulus added. “There was a little bit of overlap, but not much.”
Within a year, the collaboration produced a new company – ImTek. Paulus recalled that the team was presenting results from their prototype micro X-ray CT small animal imaging system at a poster session. One of the individuals attending was Henry Lopez of Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals.
“That’s really cool,” Paulus recalls Lopez saying. “I want one.” Gleason added that Lopez asked, “How do I get one?”
ImTek was founded in 1999, shortly after the conversation with Lopez, to produce the initial MicroCAT product.
Paulus said that he and his family were on spring break that year when ImTek received a fax with an order for the first device and the commitment of $75,000 upfront.
“Our sleepless nights began,” he said, explaining that the new company had to deliver the first MicroCAT by December 1999. To do so, they had to redo the mechanical design and improve the software. They also had to secure space outside ORNL which they found in a building owned by Gleason’s father-in-law off Sutherland Avenue in Knoxville.
As Gleason and Paulus related the story of the inaugural deliveries, they laughed as they recalled that the first one was “not without some excitement,” Paulus said, adding that “we blew at least two fuses” during the installation at the Parke-Davis site.
They gave their first customer a guarantee of post-installation software upgrades at no cost, an indication of the values that they hold.
ImTek’s second installation occurred at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
“Shaun was writing a three-dimensional image reconstruction algorithm and had a laptop on his shoulder” as we entered the hospital cafeteria to eat lunch with the customer, Paulus recalled. “How’s it working,” Paulus asked quietly? Gleason whispered, “We’ll know soon enough. It’s running in my backpack.”
Early challenges clearly led to improvements and ultimate success. As they got started, Gleason and Paulus recalled two organizations that played critical roles. “ORNL was very supportive of us,” Gleason said, citing the proactive stature of Group Leaders and Division Directors in establishing conflict of interest mitigation plans that protected ORNL while allowing them to pursue their company.
Paulus cited the start-up’s collaboration with Knoxville-based Agile Engineering, now known as Agile Technologies, as “huge.” Agile manufactured “everything that moved.”
NEXT: From two installations to a rapid ramp-up.