AT A GLANCE
Name: Steffen Nock
Position: Co-founder and VP of Biochemistry, Zyomyx
Prior Experience: Developed surface-based assays for studying muscle proteins actin and myosin during postdoctoral studies at Stanford University. Studied the structure and function of bacterial translation factors as a graduate student at Bayreuth University.
In the fall of 1996, when Steffen Nock was preparing to leave the Bavarian town of Bayreuth for a two-year postdoc at Stanford University, he never imagined that he would become a co-founder of Zyomyx, a pioneering proteomics startup in California that now employs 125 people. After all, like many ambitious young German scientists, “the idea was [to go over] for two years as a postdoc and then come back,” he said.
He had spent the last 10 years as an undergraduate and graduate student in biochemistry in Bayreuth — a town more famous for its annual Richard Wagner festival than its 30-year-old university — but he wasn’t interested in taking the tedious path to a German professorship. Instead, the soft-spoken biochemist said he planned to return to Germany to pursue a career as a scientist in industry, and he certainly never thought he would become an entrepreneur.
In fact, Nock began his academic career studying genetics, and cloned a gene from the Gingko biloba tree for his master’s thesis at Bayreuth — not exactly protein research. This changed when he joined Mathias Sprinzl’s group in 1993 for his PhD, working on EF-Tu and EF-Ts, two nucleotide-binding proteins that are part of the translation machinery of bacteria. “It was classical biochemistry but not really proteomics,” Nock said, and included kinetic studies as well as the analysis of protein-protein interactions.
When Nock joined James Spudich’s group at Stanford in October 1996, he continued his work on nucleotide-binding proteins — this time studying muscle proteins. He was drawn to Stanford because of Spudich’s reputation, but the Bay Area as a whole also offered a stimulating environment, filled with famous scientists and known as a hotbed for new technologies.
As part of his postdoctoral research, Nock began developing surface-based assays to study the movements of actin and myosin, and began working closely with Peter Wagner, a fellow German postdoc in Spudich’s lab with several years of experience in surface chemistry and a PhD in surface biophysics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Z rich. Witnessing the gene-chip wave started by Pat Brown and others at Stanford, Nock and Wagner realized that they had developed a deep understanding of how proteins interact with surfaces that would enable them to develop protein chips.
Joined by two other Stanford postdocs, whom no longer work with the Zyomyx, they wrote a business plan in early 1998 around their initial ideas for using protein “microdevices” in drug screening and assays of enzymatic activity. The group later settled on expression profiling as the main application, and by the summer of 1998 had hooked their first investor, Palo Alto-based Skyline Ventures. Skyline put up half of the company’s $1 million in seed funding, with the other half coming from angel investors, and Zyomyx was born.
Realizing that running a company was a full-time job, the German duo quit their postdoctoral studies and moved into a tiny office in Mountain View with “no equipment except for computers to make Power Point presentations,” Nock said. Ironically, their own company had to sponsor their applications for working visas that would allow them to stay and work in the US.
Nock and Wagner’s next challenge was to secure enough funding to start lab operations. “From September ‘98 through March ‘99, we were running up and down Sand Hill Road [in Menlo Park] to talk to the VCs to get more money,” Nock recalled. But their efforts were not in vain: With $8.6 million from their second round, they were able to rent lab space in Hayward, hire staff and get the research off the ground.
Two further financing rounds in 2000 raised a total of $50 million and allowed them to grow to their current size of 125 employees and expand to 90,000 square feet. Such rapid growth would have been impossible back home in Germany, Nock said, where investors used to be too cautious of the financial risks associated with startups based strictly on ideas, though he said this has changed somewhat recently.
Although Zyomyx was founded in California, its approach bears some signs of characteristic German thoroughness. The company has made an effort to optimize every aspect of its protein arrays, from substrate topology and surface chemistry to the delivery of proteins and the bioassays. But despite such conscientiousness, the verdict is still out on whether the market is looking for such high-end products. Zyomyx is planning to launch its first product, an expression profiling system offering both standard cytokine capturing and custom biochips, in early 2003, and Fujirebio in Japan and Specialty Laboratories are currently testing the prototype versions.
Nock sees two main applications for these arrays: in drug discovery, for characterizing sets of targets discovered by other technologies, such as 2D gel electrophoresis, and in diagnostics, to find patterns of protein markers that can be correlated to disease.
Nowadays, Nock heads biochemistry and assay development at Zyomyx, supervising 35 people. Although he is no longer involved in hands-on experiments, he said he is still very close to the lab, “and I don’t want to lose that.”
The next few years will show if Zyomyx will be able to survive the seemingly inevitable shake-out of protein chip companies. Zyomyx’s future might also determine his own, Nock said, because he could imagine moving back to Germany to raise his family — his wife, also from Germany, is currently expecting their first child. Wherever he ends up, he is likely to remain at the frontier of applied research. “I like to develop new tools and make them useful for the pharmaceutical industry,” Nock professed. “You see an idea becoming real and at the end useful.”