Like any savvy entrepreneur, when Marek Minarik suspected there might be a business opportunity in high-throughput sequencing in the Czech Republic, he didn’t waste any time. “I thought if I don’t do this now, someone else will,” he says. “Eastern European countries are probably going to join the EU in the next two years, so now is the time to develop technologies and have the team and resources in place so when the time comes you’re ready.”
And that’s how Minarik, a 31-year-old Czech with a PhD in bioanalytical chemistry, became the proud owner of the first MegaBACE sequencer in the Eastern Bloc. Or, more accurately, that’s how Marek’s father Milan became the owner, and Marek became seriously in debt to dear old dad.
Minarik the younger got his start in the sequencing biz two years ago when, fresh out of Boston’s Northeastern University, he went to work for Amersham Biosciences. He was responsible for trying out new applications for the MegaBACE in the company’s genotyping R&D group in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Minarik the elder, who was employed in the Czech Academy of Sciences for 20 years under the communist regime, had started Watrex Praha in 1990 — a company that builds robotic applications for scientific instruments. His products include an automated plate loader for high-performance liquid chromatography instruments, and, “when he saw the MegaBACE he knew” it needed an automated base-loading machine, says Marek.
Marek left Amersham last summer and shipped a used MegaBACE to an old machine shop he had rented in Prague. In no time, his father had developed a $37,000 base-loading robot called Caddy and began selling it to MegaBACE customers around the world. To date, Watrex has installed eight of the instruments in Germany, the US, and Australia, and has another five on order. In June the company will host a two-day meeting in Prague featuring speakers who are using the Caddy for genomic research. (Marek says that “for whatever reason” Amersham wasn’t interested in licensing Caddy, but that Amersham sales reps now refer customers to Watrex.)
Meanwhile, Marek’s company, Genomac, has moved from the machine shop to a lab space where he and his younger sister Lucie, who is finishing a PhD in molecular biology at St. Charles University in Prague, are developing methods for using the MegaBACE to detect and screen SNPs. “I’m hoping that years from now, we’ll have throughput for close to 10,000 genotypes per day,” Minarik says, adding that while such technology exists, it currently costs more than $1 per SNP. His goal is to get the price down to around 50 cents per SNP.
Due to how fruitful the instrument has been for Watrex, much of Minarik’s loan has already been forgiven by his father. Still, the MegaBACE is hard at work carrying out sequencing contracts that will pay off what’s left while establishing Genomac as a “major sequencing house in the Czech Republic.” Minarik and his sister introduced their sequencing services to the Prague research community by running free samples for local universities, government labs, and hospitals, “hoping they would place orders.” Most didn’t work out, but two major projects now keep Genomac busy, he says.
The $10 to $20 he charges per sample to do PCR and sequencing from both ends “is double or three times what some others would advertise,” Minarik says, but, the born businessman adds, “we always make sure we do it right and we give a warranty.”
— Adrienne Burke