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Call of the Wild

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John Luckey was the first person to sequence DNA in a capillary — and probably the first to survive a startup by bow-hunting his own food

 

By Meredith W. Salisbury

 

John Luckey didn’t want to start a company. After working for years in Lloyd Smith’s lab at the University of Wisconsin, his plan was to head back to sunny California and work for Applied Biosystems. But by early 1994, ABI had turned him down and the likes of Incyte wanted to buy the genotyping instrument he and fellow grad student Bob Brumley were designing — so he reconsidered.

“We actually got a check [from Incyte] for $62,000,” Luckey recalls. “You either take it to the bank and go to the Bahamas for the next 50 years or you form a company.” So he became president of GeneSys Technologies and started growing his hair out, joking that he’d cut it off only when he was counting his millions.

GeneSys started out on an old horse farm in Mazomanie, Wis., population 1,300. The early days of living hand to mouth saw Luckey, an avid bow-hunter, and Brumley take afternoons off for deer hunting to get food. (When they recruited a programmer a few years later, they promised him: “We’ll cut your pay, you’ll freeze your ass off, and you’ll have all the deer meat you can eat,” recalls Jim Golden, who wound up working there for three years and is now business development manager at CuraGen’s 454 subsidiary.)

The first thing Luckey bought with the Incyte check was the glamourless green van that became an indelible part of his industry image. A manual transmission Plymouth, it served as the shipping and handling department: with Incyte’s order for the instrument, “we had to have something to deliver it in,” Luckey says pragmatically. The van held the 300-pound, coffin-esque machine and some robotics to go with it, and in it the guys would travel cross-country, delivering instruments, showing prototypes, making service calls. By the time Luckey sold the van, he’d racked up 150,000 miles, mostly in the first three years of business.

Middle of Nowhere

Wisconsin, too, became inextricably linked with Luckey’s image. “I met John at a Hilton Head party probably five years ago,” says Peter Vander Horn, vice president of research at MJ Bioworks, who now works with him. “John Luckey was the bartender, and he was handing out cheese curds. It starts right there, right? He’s serving liquor and handing out cheese curds.”

These days, Luckey envisions himself staying indefinitely in his lakefront home, where he lives with his wife and young daughter and uses his free time to hunt, ride his Harley, or practice the raucous sport of wake boarding, a combination of snowboarding and water-skiing. But when he started out, the state was supposed to be a stepping-stone in his career.

A quiet, lanky native of Rochester, NY, Luckey attended Stanford, where he became fascinated with chemistry and was first exposed to capillary electrophoresis in Richard Zare’s lab. While looking for a grad school in 1988, he got a call from Lloyd Smith, who was just setting up a lab at Wisconsin and trying to outstrip the ABI 370 sequencer with capillary technology. Hoping that Smith’s connection to ABI would eventually help him land a job in the Foster City, Calif., offices, Luckey accepted the offer. “I didn’t come from the DNA sequencing side of it,” he says. But at Smith’s lab, he got hooked.

In 1990, Luckey published the first paper on separations of DNA sequence in capillaries. Smith pushed the team to attempt multiple-capillary sequencing, but Luckey stuck with single capillary, trying to learn as much as possible about how it worked. He played around with buffer chemistries, column length, salt fronts, and electric field strength, all in search of improved read length and resolution. By the time he hit on changing the current, the technique was like clockwork. “At 50 volts, you could see out to 1,500 bases, you could resolve out to 800,” Luckey says. “I was just jumping somersaults.”

Luckey proclaims himself, and certainly is, “very opinionated” when it comes to capillary electrophoresis. Perhaps most notably, his work led to a hotly debated new model describing the mobility of DNA.

Smith remembers it well. Luckey had come to the lab one day with an argument to explain the unusual data he was getting from his capillary experiments, but “I felt like his argument was circular,” Smith says. “The next day he came in with a model that was exactly the right kind of thing.”

Whether it was exactly right by industry standards was another matter. For several months after his paper appeared on the model, people responded with letters about how improbable his idea was. “I don’t care that they slammed my paper,” Luckey says with characteristic unflappability. “It was controversial and it made people wonder, and I think that’s the most important thing about science.”

Business Beckons

As Luckey’s grad school days drew to a close, he and fellow Smith lab member Brumley talked more and more seriously at a deli across the street about their idea for a gel-based genotyper with a fiber-optic scanner. Smith didn’t think it would work, but Jim Weber, senior research scientist at Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic, wanted to give it a shot. “I was impressed with John from the beginning,” Weber says. “Lloyd … called John the best person he’d ever had in his laboratory. That’s quite a compliment from Lloyd Smith.”

Luckey arranged for a one-year postdoc position at Marshfield, where he built the prototype of what would become the GTI 9600, named for its 96 lanes, and later the MJ BaseStation. Vander Horn, who calls his colleague “scary smart,” says learning on the fly is one of Luckey’s most noteworthy talents. “Anything he wants to be an expert on, within three months, he’s an expert on it.”

Instrument at the ready, Brumley and Luckey headed for the horse farm and life in the business world. Customers included Incyte, University of California at Davis, Washington University, and Novartis — all loyal users who often resisted giving back their favorite machines for newer versions. GeneSys eventually developed a relationship with MJ Research around 1998 and renamed itself MJ GeneWorks; Luckey is now principal scientist at MJ Bioworks, located at the same site as GeneWorks in Sauk City, Wis., where his office is littered with Taco Bell chihuahuas.

And he still has the ponytail. “I already have the itch to get rid of it,” he admits, “but my wife would kill me.” It could be more than a change in hairstyle: “This phase of my life [may be] coming to a close,” he says, since he’s working less than ever with the sequencing instrument. Up next? He’s mulling the enjoyably contentious world of academics, where both Smith and Weber agree he’s a natural.

In the meantime, he takes pride in what he’s accomplished. Luckey never had illusions of becoming a major player in the instrument market. “You’re half a dozen people up there against the likes of PerkinElmer and Amersham,” he says. “But to be a thorn in their side, maybe that’s enough.”

 

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