Until last year, the people at ParAllele BioScience worked away with almost no industry attention. But ever since Tom Willis’s company, a spinout from Ron Davis’s Stanford genome center, won an NHGRI grant to work on the HapMap, its name seems to be everywhere.
Willis comes from a physics background (“We call ourselves recovering physicists,” he jokes), and he got drawn into genomics after reading about it in scientific journals. “Genomics and the biology in general was making a transition from really smart people doing very clever experiments with pretty stable technology to a mode in which physics has been for a long time,” he says. “A physicist looks at a problem you can’t solve [and says], ‘What technology can I make to get the answers?’”
Willis spent five years at Davis’s genome center and worked intensively on molecular inversion probes, the SNP discovery and scoring technology basis for ParAllele. He and Davis cofounded the company in late 2001, but “maybe in reaction to the hype and deflation of the genomics industry, we didn’t want to be a company that made big claims before they were achieved,” Willis says. He also realized that “if we were going to be a high-throughput genotyping company, we had to be part of [the HapMap] project.”
So he coauthored a grant with the Baylor genome center, which was awarded last October. Since then, things have been moving up for Willis. With a pilot project association study under his belt, he’s in talks with pharmaceutical companies to get his product out to the industry. “So far,” he says, “it’s been really fun — being able to take your ideas and have ownership over them completely.”