By William Diepenbrock
Irvine, May 05, 2016 —They didn’t teach this in grad school.
UC Irvine (UCI) biomedical engineer Christopher Heylman, PhD, is standing in a room with 30 potential investors who are grilling him about his vision for a novel device that can return biological testing results faster and more accurately than anything on the market.
“It’s a pressure cooker, even with all the practice you get in academia defending your research, all those times when the smartest people in your field pick yourscience apart,” Heylman said.
“This is a whole different ballgame. They don’t want to know about the science or the data. They want to know about you and your team. In a pitch for funding, you have to say we’re going to change the world and here’s how we’re going to do it. Here’s our device, here’s our team, here’s our vision. You have to have faith in us, and we need your money to make this happen.”
A year ago, Heylman was an expert in fluorescent microscopy and tissue engineering, a self-described academic introvert more at home in front of lab machines than human beings.
Then he was tapped to run Velox Biosystems, a startup company housed in the TechPortal incubator at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). Calit2’s TechPortal helps scientists launch businesses based on ideas they cook up in their labs. TechPortal, along with UCI’s Applied Innovations program, has assembled a host of resources that provide intensive training in how to create a business plan, research markets and secure investors.
Heylman, who had worked on the technology behind the new testing tool, became CEO of Velox; a colleague, UCI graduate student Neto Sosa, became the company’s chief technology officer.
They remain on campus, work out of Velox’s lab facilities in TechPortal, and enjoy access to UC resources that include fabrication and prototyping facilities, even attorneys who can help them navigate patent filings en route to marketing their device. In exchange, UC benefits from royalties on sales and creates a speedier pathway to market for ideas developed in its labs. Eventually, the companies become independent and open the space for a new enterprise.
“It really offers a nice smooth transition out of the university and into a real company. At the traditional storybook startup, you’re on your own; you’re going on a hope and a prayer,” Heylman said. “This is a bit gentler.”
HOW IT WORKS
Velox was founded in April 2014 by UC Irvine Professor Weian Zhao – whose laboratory developed the testing technology – after publication of a journal article excited industry leaders.
The tool takes a biological sample – for example, blood or water – mixes it with chemical reagents and then channels it through a stream of oil. This creates hundreds of millions of tiny droplets. The droplets are loaded into a cuvette, a beaker about 2 inches tall by half an inch wide. The cuvette is agitated, spinning the droplets into a mini-tornado. A laser illuminates the now three-dimensional sample, causing droplets carrying specific markers – such as contaminants or diseases – to glow.
The entire process takes about an hour.
Each of the tools had previously existed, but no one had assembled them together to create such a novel process, dubbed Integrated Comprehensive Droplet Digital Detection, or IC3D. (By comparison, typical biological sampling takes up to two weeks, requires additional steps such as growing cultures, and samples far less material in one or two dimensions.)
Velox must decide which market to enter first – a decision that calls on both the firm’s scientific prowess and its growing business acumen. Top contenders include testing for Lyme disease and cancer and detecting e.Coli in water.
“You have to know who your customers are, what the market looks like, whether they will adopt what we’re selling – all before you can go and ask investors for money,” Heylman said.
So Heylman and Sosa hit the phones and the streets.
“We’ve talked to emergency room doctors in the Northeast about Lyme disease, we’ve talked with oncologists and pathologists all over the world, to understand how they would use our technology for cancer detection and we’ve talked to every water district we could get our hands on,” Heylman said.
The research also helped the duo create a narrative about IC3D, translating technical information into a vision they could share with investors.
“I’ve had to learn storytelling – a totally foreign skill set for me,” Heylman said. “We tell the story of a patient. You walk into your doctor’s office, show him your symptoms. They draw your blood, drop the sample into our machine, push go and, in an hour, we’ll know if you have the disease, and if yes, you can begin the proper treatment immediately.”
Still, while standing in front of investors, Heylman was often acutely aware of the limits of his fledging business knowledge.
“It’s a “Shark Tank” scenario, absolutely. You’re no longer with your UCI and academic peers,” Heylman said. “There have been investors who say,‘nope, not interested,’ even before you get the words out of your mouth. They have previous experience with a medical device business that didn’t do very well.”
At one stage, Heylman was making three pitches a week to raise funds – efforts that secured Velox about $100,000 in investments in its first year. It was enough to begin product development and market research, but turning the laboratory version of IC3D into a functional physician’s tool will take a lot more money.
READYING FOR MARKET
Specifically, Velox will need to raise funds to hire a specialty firm to design the tool and undergo federal product reviews. Design efforts can take a year. Reviews – needed if Velox enters a medical field – can take up to two years.
The firm is also exploring licensing the tool to medical firms that would develop their own applications, another possible revenue stream.
All those efforts will put Heylman back into pitch rooms and in front of potential investors and partners.
“It’s been very exciting,” Heylman said. “I’ve had to come out of my shell a little bit. I’ve learned to talk to people and listen to them, to understand their needs. Then, you fit your solution to their needs.”
Another result: After 10 years in university research, Heylman said his life path has taken a surprising and exciting turn.
“I was on the path to be an academic professor, to run a lab. That’s essentially why you do a post-doctoral fellowship –to get further training, learn how to write grants, how to manage a lab,” he said.
“Now, even in just the short time I’ve been working with this, I think I’m an entrepreneur for life. I really like this startup environment. The idea of taking exciting technology and translating it into real world applications is right where I want to be.”