Seeking out the entrepreneurial thrill
By Steven Powell, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-1923
Just before the New Year, Andrew Lee was preparing to leave Columbia, but a new entrepreneurial venture convinced him to stay. And now, just a little more than half a year later, the company he co-founded and runs, Integrated Micro-Chromatography Systems, or IMCS, is showing tremendous promise.
Safety testing in all kinds of industries, from pharmaceuticals to medical diagnostics, relies on the ability to separate a particular biological material from a very complex mixture – such as a pulling a specific protein out of human blood. IMCS makes micro-filters that cut several time-consuming steps from traditional procedures, allowing customers to rapidly do these separations without major equipment upgrades.
The filters make it much more efficient to ensure a patient has enough vitamin D in the blood or a pharmaceutical company has the proper dose of a new medicine in the drug discovery process. IMCS works with established companies in a range of industries to improve their analytical testing.
“Within six months of launch, it had seven products, and we already have revenue coming in,” said Lee. “We’re wrapping up testing on one product in the customer’s hands, and once they like it, I think our early market entry could be somewhere around $5 million in sales, right out the gate.”
The rapid early ascent of IMCS was greatly aided by the entrepreneurial experience of its president, Lee, who first arrived at USC in 2005 as a biochemistry doctoral student in professor Qian Wang’s laboratory. After earning his degree in August 2010, Lee stayed to work as a postdoctoral fellow in Wang’s lab – and to do a few other things as well.
“I was moonlighting then for our startup company, A&Q Nano,” Lee said. The company, co-founded by Lee and Wang, uses nanotechnology to create methods to stabilize vaccines for room- and high-temperature transportation and storage, among other efforts. “It’s been ongoing for two years now, and we’ve had a small amount of revenue. It’s been a really good segue into IMCS.”
He also took on analytical work on the side with Terressentia, an innovative producer of distilled spirits based in North Charleston, S.C.. The firm has a proprietary method for rapidly converting brandy, vodka and other distilled spirits into products with a highly desirable “aged” flavor – top shelf, in other words.
Terressentia’s technique involves high-energy sonication, and Lee worked as a consultant to analyze the molecular makeup of the liquor before and after the process.
But the biggest contribution to Lee’s entrepreneurial success is the people he’s met along the way. “Qian Wang and I first met at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego,” Lee said. “I was in a research position, and he was doing a postdoctoral stint. So it’s been 10 years now – it’s a great working relationship.”
And it was talking with Bill Brewer, a senior instructor and fellow entrepreneur in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, that made IMCS come into being.
“Bill started a company called DPX Labs in 2007,” Lee said. DPX uses patented single-use microfiltration devices to speed up the process of doing toxicological testing for food safety and other applications. Lee and Brewer talked about how to create a spin-off company that would complement DPX by focusing on biological products rather than chemical ones.
“The example I like to give is spinach testing,” Lee said. “To test for contaminants, you have to grind it up and then filter off the solids so you can test the liquid. DPX analyzes chemicals – pesticides, for example – and IMCS will focus on a biological product, such as DNA or protein analysis in cells.”
Brewer’s company DPX has been doubling revenue over the past three years, Lee said. “Bill saw a potential fit with the A&Q Nano’s biotechnology. As we discussed possible fits between A&Q Nano and DPX, we decided to merge some of our ideas together, and spin off this company called IMCS.” The company is now situated in the Horizon building, the second tenant (after Selah Genomics) in IdeaLabs.
Working to bring IMCS to commercial fruition is fulfilling a long-held ambition. “It’s been one of my early aspirations,” Lee said. “I’ve wanted to do a startup or company development using one of the university’s technologies for a while.
“I always like a challenge, and I like to do multiple things on a day-to-day basis, set my own priorities and make my own deadlines. With a new company, there’s just always that thrill of it, a make-or-break thrill.”