Steve Gullans is living proof of the squeaky-wheel theory. Five or six years ago, the academic with posts at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard University attended a relatively small meeting on the West Coast that touched on functional genomics. Merck’s Tom Caskey gave a talk about his company’s research. Afterwards, in front of the entire conference, “I got up and told Tom I loved his talk, but what I really wanted as an academic was an array machine,” Gullans remembers. His comment didn’t go unnoticed: by the time he returned from the meeting, he had a letter from Affymetrix promising him that very instrument.
Gullans, who then had one of the very first such machines from Affy, found his career focusing on arrays. “It opened a door for doing lots and lots of array work, working in virtually every field known to man,” he says. “I think at one point we had 45 collaborations going.” Gullans was certainly the right person to handle such a broad load: his own background includes marine biology, NMR spectroscopy, molecular biology, and RNA analysis.
Now 51, the self-professed technophile believes it’s time to move on. “For me, arrays are history,” he says. His own research shifted to finding blood biomarkers for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Meanwhile, he helped out a VC firm doing due diligence on a startup called US Genomics — and was impressed with what he found. “I saw the opportunity for the instrument and the technology in functional genomics,” he says, citing the tool’s ability to measure protein and RNA levels without amplification.
So the academic jumped the fence. Technically on sabbatical from Harvard — his lab continues running in his absence — he accepted a position about a year ago as CSO for US Genomics. Since he joined, the company raised $32 million in financing and hired new CEO Stephen Falco to replace founder Eugene Chan. He’s regularly on the speaking circuit stumping for the technology (“If you can run it on a gel, basically you should throw away your gel and run it on your US Genomics machine,” he says). And internally, he’s in charge of figuring out new ways to use the platform and exploring different scientific activities.
He also spends time advocating for the private sector in general. “Everybody’s got this curiosity about what it’s like” outside academia, he says. “A lot of the restrictions applied in the NIH review process aren’t applied here. … There’s an awful lot of better science going on.”