AT A GLANCE
Name: Keith Rose
Position: Chief Scientific Officer, GeneProt
Prior Experience: Professor of Medical Biochemistry, University of Geneva, co-founder of Abiotic, which morphed into Ciphergen Biosystems and Gryphon Sciences
In the second installment of ProteoMonitor’s interview with Keith Rose, the GeneProt CSO talks about how he helped start the company and what its plans for the future are. The first half of this interview appeared in the April 2 edition of ProteoMonitor.
How did you get GeneProt up and running?
We [did it as] a team. There were five professors within the University of Geneva who set up GeneProt, and we all had different expertise. But just like at Gryphon, one of these academics had to actually go in there. You can’t just run this at arm’s length — it’s more than a full-time job. So it was a time when my children were old enough to let me do this, and I saw it as a fantastic challenge. I’m also a person with experience in mass spectrometry, protein separation, and synthesis, so it seemed a job made for me really. I got permission from the university to leave — I’m on leave of absence if you like — and I’m 100 percent an employee of GeneProt.
We got started on five temporary sites. I had mass spectrometers in one place, I had peptide synthesis in a disused Akzo Nobel explosives factory out in the Geneva countryside, my colleagues had some bioinformaticians housed with GeneBio, and we had an office — one of these offices for hire — whilst this building here was being reequipped.
In March of 2001, we said to Waters and to Bruker: ‘[We need] 51 mass spectrometers and nearly 100 HPLC machines to install right now.’ They said [they couldn’t] install that kind of equipment in a month. And we said, ‘You’re not just our suppliers, you’re our partners: Find a way,’ and they did. Bruker sent us everybody they had, and Waters pulled some people out of the production unit in Milford, [Mass.], and sent them over here. A really great team spirit developed and they did it. I was able to show at the CPSA conference in Princeton in October of 2001 what we had done in 13 months. People from Lilly, Schering, and so on said, ‘That’s absolutely amazing to have gone from a PowerPoint presentation to a fully functional facility with all those machines and a supercomputer in that time.’ They said it would have taken 3-5 years in big pharma to do.
And now you’re trying to do it again in New Jersey?
Yes. It will be more difficult in New Jersey. Here we cheated if you like, in that the university founders put in some of the best elements of their research groups to help found the company. We didn’t draft anybody in, but when we showed them what could be done here — probably the salaries helped as well — we got a lot of very good people to come into the company very quickly. They were people who’d already worked together as a team. This is worth more than just getting some good people in. And nobody has left — we’re 108 people today I think — and not a single scientist, technician, or bioinformatician has left the company for whatever reason. That is incredibly rare.
Is that one of the challenges in trying to create this facility in NJ — just trying to get the right people?
Yes. What we have to do — I saw it work here — is get some key people sort of imbibed with the company spirit. And today in fact the first NJ scientist has come on board. He’s come to Geneva. We have Xudong Yao, an experienced mass spectrometrist, who has come from Catherine Fenselau’s lab at the University of Maryland, and he will stay here until the NJ facility opens its doors. We will have some other NJ recruits come here to learn the ropes, and when they go over to NJ they will be able to form a nucleus and help us hire other staff and select equipment. That’s how we’re doing it.
Is working for GeneProt the peak of what you’d like to be doing in your career?
Today I devote essentially all my time and energy to GeneProt. I think I had one and a quarter days holiday in 2000, and that was a Saturday and a quarter of a Sunday. Obviously I’ve done a bit better in 2001 because nobody can keep that up, but the hours are absolutely incredible. But this is really what I want to do, because it is in my areas of passionate interest: mass spectrometry, protein chemistry, protein separation, and synthesis. I’m not really looking beyond that today. I’m not in this for personal money or whatever; I have a duty to my colleagues whom I invited to join me on this challenge, and I want to make an impact in health care. I think this is the way that someone with my history and expertise can do that. That’s what fires me with enthusiasm. GeneProt is really well started, but we must look beyond where we are today and look into getting some function for the proteins we discover. Two of the three proteins we sent to Novartis are now going into disease-specific animal models. That’s fantastic, but Novartis will not be our only partner. They don’t have anybody on our board, we’re independent, and we’re actively looking for other pharma and big biotech partners and clients.
Do you have to prove that these Novartis proteins work before other people sign on?
I was very pleased when we got the results for those proteins because I often joke and say, ‘Compared with combinatorial chemistry, two hits out of three ain’t bad.’ But of course they’re not random. These were very hand-picked. We made a certain number of proteins, we offered them to Novartis, they went forward with three of them, and they got really excellent results with two of them. To me this really validates the model of being able to discover proteins by data mining, analytical proteomics, or a combination of the two — and then be able to synthesize potential therapeutic proteins. If you look at what makes money today, the therapeutic proteins like GCSF and EPO and insulin and so on are making billions of billions of dollars.
Getting new clients is just a matter of convincing people?
Getting new clients is a task for the scientists and for business development. One has the competition — other proteomics companies out there — but there’s also sometimes an internal group that’s doing proteomics within the potential client, and one has to come to a relationship with them as well, to show that one is complementary, because in the end the money has to come out of somebody’s budget. The more proteins that we find and show are active, obviously the more this will validate what we do. What’s important and distinguishes us from other proteomics companies is that we make them by chemical synthesis, and so this allows us to make labeled versions, [or] we can have a fluorescent group on the protein, since we’re making it by fragment condensation, [or] we can have a mouse version if we want to test in mice — it’s a very modular way of making proteins.
Will you have to spend time in NJ? Are you ready to leave Geneva?
I will clearly have to go over there for a while to help set this up, but we are looking for senior staff for there as well. I have a good CTO here, Diana Wetmore, who came from Scriptgen, and I’m looking for a CTO for NJ.
Today when Xudong Yao came [to Geneva] for his first day, he looked out the window and it was a perfectly blue sky and there’s some snow-capped mountains just a very few kilometers away. He’d spent the weekend at [Lake Geneva], and he said what a marvelous place Geneva is. It’s true. I’m sure NJ has it’s charms. I don’t think I would retire to North Brunswick, but I certainly intend to put all the energy I’ve got into building up [the GeneProt facility there] as quickly as possible.