At A Glance
Scott Magnuson, president, GenUs Biosystems.
PhD — 1989, Biological Chemistry, University of Illinois.
BA — 1978, Chemistry and Biology, Millikin University.
Scott Magnuson likes Chicago, and he likes the CodeLink Bioarray products, which he helped develop when he was head of genomics and bioinformatics for Motorola Life Sciences. But when Motorola sold the CodeLink division to Amersham in July 2002, the 47-year-old Magnuson was not ready to uproot his family from Chicago and relocate. So, he stayed on as a consultant until the end of March and then, in April, incorporated GenUs Biosystems, a startup that offers gene-expression profiling services and employs six. The founders were him and John Callaci and Michael Falduto two colleagues from the 10 years he had previously spent as a senior staff scientist at Abbott Laboratories The company is the latest in a growing number of microarray-based services offerings and one of the first built on the CodeLink platform. BioArray News caught up with Magnuson recently to discuss the startup and where it might fit in with the evolving microarray market.
Are you basing all of your services on the CodeLink platform?
Yes. We are going with off-the-shelf slides from CodeLink. We are taking the position that we are endorsing the best technology. Over the last three or four years, I had the opportunity to evaluate the field and the technologies that were there as part of my job to develop the gene-expression microarray. It was a unique situation and a chance to see the products that were out there and come up with the best technology.
You have to give credit to Motorola. When they developed the CodeLink product, they had a vision of applying microelectronics and microfluidics to microarrays. They mixed three good technologies — a gel matrix [substrate], piezo-electric spotting, and the pre-synthesis of oligos — and mixed that with high quality manufacturing processes to make their arrays.
Would you give an insider’s tour of the CodeLink process?
Sure. Presynthesizing oligos — making them offline — gives the opportunity to check all levels of quantity and quality of the sequences so there is no doubt about the sequences being put on the array. The piezo-electro spotting mechanism allows very precise spotting of that oligo down into and on top of the [gel] matrix on the glass slide. With the gel technology, you get bright fluorescence on a black background. While CodeLink recommends normalization, you can almost not do one — that’s how reproducible the technology is. I get goose bumps just looking at the data.
So, what happened to cause Motorola to sell the unit?
The company had a lot of pressure, in my opinion, from their investors to focus on what they do best — making semiconductors, cell phones, and pagers — and sell off the life sciences business. The whole process of the sale took three or four months. I stayed on for another seven or eight months, all the way through March, helping develop genomics and bioinformatics. That spearheaded my partners and I coming up with this. We had been talking about starting a molecular biology business, and there was no reason why we couldn’t start this in Chicago.
Why did you decide to build a business around performing services?
At Motorola and Amersham, my job was to go out on the road with sales and give the technology presentations. I came in contact with a lot of academics who said: ‘I love the technology, but I can’t afford it and I can’t afford to train the personnel.’ I used to joke, ‘here, my garage is open.’ Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on me, there’s a real market and scientists are clamoring for this. Having access to the data is driving the life sciences market. And, what has happened is that people are realizing that this is difficult, but the benefit is that the data is tremendous. We want to take this process and make it painless for individual researchers and companies. If you can get to the point where you have a sample, we can take it from there and hold down the costs for the investigator — both in capital and labor.
So, now you have a facility, and it’s not in a garage, but in the Chicago Technology Park. What kind of space and equipment do you have?
We have a 1,000-square-foot lab. We have a standard spectrophotometer, an Agilent BioAnalyzer — which is a critical component for every microarray lab — a typical orbital air shaker, and an Axon 4000B scanner. That is something I like about the CodeLink platform, you can use any of the current scanners out there — Agilent, Axon — and you can even use the Affymetrix scanner.
How are you financing this?
We paid cash. We are privately funded, and we want to stay pretty lean and mean in terms of the equipment we have. And, because we are not getting any funding from any of the microarray manufacturers, we think that’s strength and we can offer whatever is the best technology. And, based on the lab size, we can expand to a lot more throughput. We are poised to grow as the market for CodeLink grows. We are expecting to reach break-even in a year.
Let’s talk about the services you perform.
We offer RNA isolation, so basically, researchers can send tissue samples to us and we will isolate the RNA, and take you through data and post-consulting analysis. Myself and my partners have about 50 years of experience in RNA isolation and we are firm believers that the critical part of this is that the data is only as good as the input samples. We will offer an initial evaluation of the quantity and the quality. We can also consult on the design aspects of the experiments, too. If you have a focused hypothesis, where you know what you are going to get, you can zoom right into the publication level, which requires about three replicates of the chip. The biggest cost is when the samples are applied to the chips.
Who are your customers?
I have to say something good about overnight delivery services. They can cover anywhere in the US. They are coming from a number of areas — academics, one pharmaceutical company, and a biotech is in the works. They are from all over the country.
Are you working weekends?
Oh yeah, we offer, literally, 24-7 services. We have a nice organizational scheme to run processes in as little as three days — from sample to data to the customer — that means we are working almost two and a half shifts.
Suppose this is wildly successful, how will you scale?
We are examining how to institute a more high-throughput manner in our lab and we are anxious to try that. I’ve seen it work at Motorola. For the scientist, it means faster turnaround, and efficient results. For us, the more samples we can run, the better we can become.
What are your goals?
The ultimate goal is to get this to the clinical market. It’s something that is still in the hands of researchers. We are looking at the clinical market as the best application of genomic technology. We are located in a medical center and I think that just by collaborating locally, we could get into any type of disease state systems, and evaluate for diagnostics and prognostic indicators. There is so much out there that needs to be evaluated based on the genomics. Our own goal is to launch our own research. We want to offer services to generate revenue, and then get into our own research.
My energy level is sky high. The timing is so right. This is kind of the dream, the culmination, bringing everything together — the experience, the level of credibitlity I and my partners have. It has all come together.