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Genotyping: Keck Spinout Ionian Says Mass Spec Is Way to Go


As the 28 students of Keck Graduate Institute’s first graduating class are accepting their diplomas in Claremont, Calif. this summer, Ionian Technologies, KGI’s first spinout company, will be moving into its new office down the road.

Ionian plans to release its first product, a genotyping system, next year. The equipment is built around a chemistry that generates small fragments of DNA, both top and bottom strands, suitable for mass spectrometer analysis, eliminating the need for fluorescent labels. “It’s really a direct read-out of the mass of the fragment, and that tells us precisely whether or not a particular SNP, for example, is present or absent,” says Sean Gallagher, president of Ionian. “And we don’t have to use specialized nucleotides that have fluorescent tags on them. The simplicity is much greater and the cost is much lower.”

David Galas, a former director of the Human Genome Project, and Jeff Van Ness developed the technology at the core of Ionian’s genotyping system in Galas’ KGI lab. (They both sit on Ionian’s board, but remain full-time KGI employees.) Ionian licensed the technology, giving the school a “very small equity position” in the spinout, says KGI president Henry Riggs. “Ionian is continuing to support ongoing research in the same general vein in Galas’ lab.”

Ionian was officially introduced in March and has raised more than $2 million in non-venture capital funding. It also has a partnership with Micromass, a division of Waters, which supplies its mass spectrometers and chromatography instrumentation. Gallagher, who is also a founder of Motorola Life Sciences, is currently working on securing more partnerships with academic and commercial institutions and “establishing a number of beta sites for the genotyping assays.”

KGI was founded in 1997 with a $50 million challenge grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation. “Our focus is on applied research and educating students for [the biosciences] industry,” Riggs says. Most of the KGI faculty members have entrepreneurial industry experience, and KGI should produce a second spinout within the next year, he adds.

And Ionian returns home to tap the institute for interns, which lightens the workload on Gallagher and his only coworker, a senior research associate. The interns gain valuable experience as well. “It’s very symbiotic,” Gallagher says. “The interns come in and learn a lot about how to start up a business. … And we gain access to really world-class talent for the summer.”

Fortunately for Ionian’s commuters, its new offices are just down the road in Upland. “It’s literally a hundred yards from Claremont,” Gallagher says. “You could walk there in 10 minutes from campus.”

— Diana Jong


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