Michelle Hanna is the founder and CEO of Ribomed Biotechnologies, a six-year-old Phoenix-based molecular biology tools startup with approximately $5 million in grants to develop technology for a handheld bioterrorism agents detection device, and the developer of a new laboratory workspace located across the street from the Translational Genomics Institute.
The company, which has DARPA and Homeland Security funding, is developing a non-PCR based biosensor technology and reagents that may be of interest to companies like Sigma-Aldrich and Invitrogen. Additionally, the firm is creating commercial lab space that may attract early-stage biotechnology development firms that might present opportunities for the licensing and acquisition of early-stage technologies.
Hanna holds a PhD in chemistry and was a biochemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma before returning to Phoenix to commercialize her biosensor technology in a company originally called Designer Genes.
BioCommerce Week spoke with Hanna this week to learn about the technology her company is developing, and about lab space for the emerging Phoenix biotechnology sector.
Can you give me an idea of where your projects are at this point?
I was a chemistry professor before I left to come back home to start this biotech company and I couldn't find lab space anywhere. Six years ago, there was no biotech industry in Phoenix. I literally had to start my company in a bathroom in a warehouse. I took out a toilet and put in a sink and a developing tank and started out that way. And, unfortunately, it's been that way for the last five years; as my company has grown, I've had to move, and find some medical building that had sinks and then had to build labs. It's been really rough, and I'm actually amazed that we have made it this far. Now that I have done that, when my company was growing again and I needed to expand, because I now have 22 people, I found that there is still no lab space. So, I bought a 30,000-square-foot building and started converting it again since last July. My company is moving this week and taking about 60 percent of the space.
What kind of instrumentation do you have?
We have three HPLC systems, two Beckman and one Waters, and a Waters mass spec. We also have an ABI DNA synthesizer. We have Beckman high-speed centrifuges and ultracentrifuges, and Beckman spectrophotometers. Then we are putting in fume hoods, autoclaves, and nanopure water systems, floor shakers, and an ice machine. The basics.
Are you looking at gene-expression equipment?
My company is developing a new way of doing molecular detection, non-PCR based. We use PCR machines and things like that. We don't have that in-house but we will be moving to doing microarray work, but we haven't done that yet.
How are you handling the computational part?
Right across the street, we have TGen and they have a big bioinformatics component and we will collaborate with them on that. We will collaborate with them on scanning databases. Our largest need for data storage comes from having to store large amounts of mass-spec data.
How did you get into biodefense?
I started the company to do early detection of cancer biomarkers. After 9/11, we were approached by the Department of Defense and asked if we could use the method called abscription (for abortive transcription) for biodefense applications. Now, we have had funding from Homeland Security and we have a big project with DARPA. They are building a handheld detection device [that] uses the abscription process for simultaneously detecting three to five pathogenic agents. It's being built for first responders, Navy SEALS, people like that. Our process is isothermal so it doesn't require you to lug 60 pounds of batteries with you.
Do you have a prototype?
We have just moved to Phase II. The device is being built by Northrop Grumman. They are testing the performance of bench-size prototypes right now. Ultimately it will be hand sized.
What kind of funding do you have?
We've gotten a little over $5 million over the last five years. It's come from NIH, including the National Cancer Institute, and NIAID, as well as DARPA and HSARPA (Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency). It's all in contracts.
You are right next to TGen and you have some access to bioinformatics. Will you need other instruments?
Well, both TGen and Ribomed have been moving over the last few months. So, we haven't had a chance to talk about what we can share. We don't have a fluorescent microscope and they probably don't have a mass spec like ours. So, I suspect that we will be sharing instrumentation.
What are your plans for the extra lab space that your company won't need?
TGen is non-profit and there is no space over there for industry. My side of the street is strictly for bioindustry. I'm trying to develop it for a bioindustry type of park. I've put in two types of labs, one of small modules of 500- to 800 -square -feet, where a company that can afford to rent, can have access to shared facilities like the centrifuges and ice machines. I'm also putting in a large lab that multiple people can use, if they don't need their own individual space. For instance, professors who are spinning out a company and want to write an SBIR grant and all they really need is 100 square feet of bench space, and a place for a refrigerator for a while.
It sounds like a cooperative.
Well I come from a university background I was at University of Oklahoma and the Medical School at UC-Irvine. There were shared instrumentation labs at both places. You had your own room and shared instrument room. So, I've left space for a tissue culture room and a cold room.
What was the building used for before you got it?
It was used for a school, a charter school. And, prior to that, it was a credit union, so we have a couple of vaults to keep the lab notebooks in. We put in new plumbing, new electrical to handle everything.
How have you financed this?
I borrowed some money from my mother and I cashed in all of my university retirement, it isn't much and I managed to get a loan. I was doing pretty well, but then it turned out that the building needed more work than I thought it would in terms of the plumbing and electrical. So, I sold my house last month, and took the equity and rolled it back into this.
How do you feel about the risk profile of the endeavor?
I'm fine with it now. The first really big risk I took was to give up a tenured faculty position as a single mother. I walked away from tenure and started a company in Arizona where there is no one to invest in biotech. After getting past that, this didn't bother me. You have to take risks. I'm excited about the company. We are launching protein and RNA detection kits and we are collaborating with manufacturers to make devices using our process.
Are there any acquisition feelers?
We've just started talking to companies. We have reagents that could easily be sold by Sigma, and, oh boy, Invitrogen would love our stuff. We just haven't had a chance to get going on it. We just finished the product in December and I'm trying to get a business development person in. I'm on my way to give a presentation at the World's Best Technologies conference [http://www.wbt05.com/] with the sole purpose of getting the technology in front of companies. Our process is such a broad-based platform technology and it can be used for detecting proteins, whether they are infectious agents or cancer biomarkers, or disease biomarkers, and it can be used to detect DNA and RNA all with one process.
Do you want to transfer this technology?
There is a lot to do with it, still. I think we want to partner with device manufacturing companies using our process. We want to get into blood-banking market testing for all these emerging nasty RNA viruses like avian flu. There is lots to do. We want to develop partnerships, we want to license the process, and we would consider selling off a portion of it. If someone was interested in just the infectious part, we are open to a lot of things.
What do you think about the thought that scientists aren't very good at the commercialization part of technology development?
I don't sleep. It is a bit much. I'm fundraising right now. I have a strong science team and I've put the money into building the science and the technology and covering the intellectual property. Now it's time to bring in business people who can do the marketing and the licensing. In the last month, I've had more companies who want to talk about partnerships.