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Done With Lunch, D’Alvise and Kurn Say, ‘Let’s Do Spia’

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It was during a very long lunch in the summer of 1999 that Jan D’Alvise and Nurith Kurn realized they were going to be business partners. In fact, even the several hours it took for Kurn to explain her new, alternative-PCR technology idea weren’t enough — the pair met at coffee houses all over Palo Alto, Calif., for further discussions and often stayed so long that D’Alvise jokes they put more than one eatery out of business.

Kurn never trained as a molecular biologist, but she worked for about 15 years at Syva, where she directed research and studied amplification and detection technologies. She left the company in late 1998 and began consulting, sometimes in diagnostic areas and sometimes closer to the pharmaceutical side, spending a lot of time counseling people on intellectual property issues. Throughout, she brainstormed what would become SPIA — single primer isothermal amplification, a simplified, automatable alternative to PCR. It always copies from the master target to reduce mistakes and doesn’t require thermal cycling, which has proven a bottleneck for anyone hoping for high-throughput PCR.

D’Alvise, meanwhile, had been vice president of commercial operations at Syva and left in 1991, pursuing pharmaceuticals at Syntex before getting into genomics-oriented consulting and launching a diagnostics company in 1995.

As Kurn became more certain of her amplification idea, she decided to approach D’Alvise about it. “It was pretty obvious to me that to get something done I would need to partner with someone with good business skills,” she says.

“She totally captured my imagination,” D’Alvise recalls. She and Kurn took the method to Jim Larrick, one of the original Cetus PCR team, to check it out. He offered them lab space and a couple of people to work on the project, which has taken off ever since. By early 2000, Kurn had the technology working smoothly. “It was already quite robust, I think it surprised even her,” D’Alvise says. Kurn filed for a patent, the two launched startup NuGen to commercialize SPIA, and the first round of funding was oversubscribed, topping out at $2 million.

This year, Kurn and D’Alvise, now respectively CSO and CEO of San Carlos, Calif.-based NuGen, expect the company to grow fairly slowly — possibly up to 30 from its current 20 people. But next year will be the major ramp-up as the technology hits full-scale commercialization, and D’Alvise predicts she may have to more than double the staff size.

— Fingerprints by Meredith Salisbury

 

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