When Entigen founder Tim Littlejohn finally left that company earlier this year, he needed a break. So he took the weekend off, and the next Monday he started up bioinformatics-based BioLateral.
A founding fetish? “There’s nothing like the thrill you get from running your own company,” Littlejohn says. “I might be a sucker for punishment, or maybe a masochist.”
The Melbourne, Australia native started out as a molecular geneticist and grew interested in bioinformatics when it “wasn’t even a word.” He left his familiar academic surroundings briefly to join what’s now the Accenture consulting firm and worked with financial computing in Columbus, Ohio. “I soon learned that biology and computing would be preferable to banking and computing,” he remembers, and so headed to the Canada organelle genome program where he studied what he calls “proper bioinformatics.” Eventually, he was lured away in 1995 by an offer to direct the NCBI-like Australian National Genomic Information Service back on home turf.
In 1998, Littlejohn spun out Entigen based on using the Internet for bioinformatics services. He and his colleagues raised VC funds and set up a branch (now the headquarters) in California. By this spring, he decided it was time for a fresh venture. A few other people were leaving the company, so he and four others sat down in April and set the stage for BioLateral. He decided on a new approach this time: no VC. It’s all being run on a cash basis — one of the reasons Littlejohn, 38, has yet to see a salary.
BioLateral has a multidimensional business plan. To get money in the door, the staff will do various contracting and consulting projects. They’ll also offer professional training for bioinformaticists, and their first courses (held this month) booked up quickly. The courses took off thanks to a partnership with IBM and the state government of New South Wales, which are helping to fund the educational program and are sending people there to learn. Littlejohn hopes to offer the course content to other companies around the world if these classes prove successful. The company will also pursue its own R&D efforts.
Part of the goal of companies like Entigen and BioLateral is to bring genomics to Australia, which lacks the Silicon Valley counterparts that have sprung up in many places. And for Littlejohn, there’s definitely the excitement of the startup. “If I set up 10, one every three years,” he says, “at least one of them’s going to be huge.”
— Meredith Salisbury