Lucigen’s is one of those classic Cinderella startup stories. Says President David Mead of the technology that his Wisconsin company is hawking: “We stumbled across it. We were trying to make multiplex cloning vectors to facilitate higher-throughput sequencing for genomics projects, and along the way something else happened that probably turns out to be more important.”
That something else is a vector for “cloning the unclonable” and it has piqued the interest of sequencing facilities looking to close the gaps on unfinished genomes. Explains Ron Godiska, senior scientist and one of Mead’s five coworkers: “We have developed a set of cloning vectors that allow researchers to clone sequences that are often unclonable with standard vectors, [such as] toxic genes, strong promoters, and AT-rich regions.”
As anyone who’s holding an unfinished genome knows, conventional vectors, which employ a blue-white screen to differentiate between vectors that have inserts and those that are empty, cause expression of the insert DNA, so toxic or deleterious coding regions can’t be cloned. Lucigen eliminates the blue-white screen problem by providing vectors pre-cut and dephosphorylated. The company uses a proprietary technique to ensure that more than 99 percent of the clones that are recovered have inserts, thus allowing the construction of more complete genomic libraries and reducing the work needed for library finishing.
With help from a local scientist-turned-marketing guru “who knew how to convert nerd-speak into catchy ad copy,” Mead says Lucigen began six months ago advertising its vectors for single and dual-insert cloning. The company, which got its start in 1999 with funding from an NIH SBIR grant, quickly reeled in the Joint Genome Institute, the European sequencing company GATC, the Institute for Genomic Research, and the Sanger Centre’s pathogen group as customers.
Mead, whose earlier claim to fame is a PCR cloning system called TA Cloning — a technology that he says he sold “for way too little” to Invitrogen, which he now estimates makes about $30 million a year off it — is an entrepreneur with a Midwestern flair. He relies on a ticking egg timer to keep him on schedule, and says “half the fun is baking the business.” His little team has seen a few profitable months already, and expects to reach break-even this summer. “If we turn the corner, you’ll hear more about us,” Mead promises.
Till then, Lucigen is funded out of his pocket and product sales. Would venture capital help him ratchet the business up a level? “VCs don’t like to talk to little companies with little ideas, and right now that’s what we are.” Plus, he says, VCs would take all the fun out of it. “Why do you want smarmy people doing smarmy things to you and your people? I’d rather fail on my own terms.”
— Adrienne J. Burke