Technology is often the first answer people give when asked what they think is the most exciting industry. But unlike consumer electronics, which generally command the most attention, that same fanfare is rarely present for biomedical technology breakthroughs. Now, two engineering Ph.D. graduates with Weinert Center ties are bucking the trend with Immuto Scientific. Co-founder Faraz Choudhury described why their startup is increasingly garnering attention:
“Immuto Scientific is a contract research organization (CRO) – similar to Covance, though in a different space. What we do is provide analytical research services for drug discovery, and so we help pharmaceutical companies with their drug discovery effort.”
Both Faraz Choudhury and Dan Benjamin earned their Ph.D.s in Electrical Engineering with certificates in entrepreneurship from UW-Madison. The concept that gave birth to Immuto Scientific came from their work with Professor Michael Sussman. Faraz and Dan collaborated with Professor Sussman to build an instrument that could be used to analyze protein structures.
As Dan put it, “He (Professor Sussman) needed to use a high-powered laser to do this type of analysis so he went to our advisor for help with setting it up, and [because] our lab actually studies plasma we knew how to substitute it for a plasma one. We then built a plasma laser system and achieved basically what all these other researchers would achieve only after setting up a giant, expensive laser.”
It didn’t take long for others to take notice that the technology had commercial potential; the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) actually patented the technology after seeing how disruptive a technology it was and its latent value.
In the early drug discovery stage, pharmaceutical companies are tasked with observing the structure of the protein and how it interacts with its target. Because of its complexity, these companies see a means of providing high resolution imagery of the proteins, as well as a solution that allows them to run their analyses efficiently, very appealing.
Faraz and Dan saw there was a huge market opportunity when they learned as students that the current technology being used, X-ray crystallography, is slow and does not work on a substantial subset of molecules. Whereas X-ray crystallography may take 6-12 months to complete an analysis, Immuto Scientific’s technology can analyze a protein’s structure and chemistry in under a week! Another key advantage Immuto Scientific brings to the market is that it can work with proteins X-ray crystallography cannot.
“This is important because proteins are very commonly used as therapeutics (medical treatment). For example, antibodies are all proteins that are used as therapeutics, and there is an entire subsection of pharmaceuticals known as biologics that are all protein-based therapeutics,” Faraz elaborated.
The company’s first major source of funding was a SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant, a grant from the federal government that allows a company to develop a new technology and one popular with similar pioneering startups. Another resource that Faraz and Dan utilized was the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps, an intensive program for entrepreneurs to help them identify if there is a market for their technology and if there is, how to build a strategy and approach it. For alum of Dan Olszewski’s Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship (WAVE) program offered at UW-Madison each spring, a similarity with I-Corps that stands out is the emphasis it places on direct, personal customer research. As Faraz explained:
“We had to interview at least 100 different customers, all the way from talking to some of the decision-makers and heads of companies like CEOs and managers to end users working in labs and doing drug discovery. We’ve actually talked to almost 200 customers to understand what the needs are in the market and how [our technology] can help.”
That work looks to have paid off, quite literally. The insights gleaned from their thorough customer research was a foundation on which they then built their business plan. Prior to speaking with customers, Faraz and Dan’s team was planning to produce and sell an instrument to market to pharmaceutical companies, leaving them to do the analysis themselves. However, following their interviews they saw that a better business model would be to provide the analysis as a service.
“They don’t want to hire full-time employees to run the instrument and do all this analysis; this is a huge barrier of entry for them to adopt a new technology. They would rather send us the sample and pay us to do the analysis” added Faraz.
Dan was also a student of the Weinert Center’s Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (MEB) in 2017 and both he and Faraz participated in the WAVE practicum (Dan in 2018 and Faraz in 2013). As a result of their team’s previous far-reaching research and planning, when Dan arrived to WAVE he was in a strong position to make the most of the class and polish their business plan. He and Faraz had discovered that their technology was best suited for a particular application, one called epitope mapping, and beginning to learn what value that service brought to customers.
“At that time, we had already [decided on] providing a service and we knew that epitope mapping was probably the way to go, but during the WAVE class was when we learned how much customers would be willing to pay, how often they do epitope mapping projects, and what a contract would look like. All of it really helped us get to a position where we knew exactly how much money we wanted to raise, what our core competencies were, and who our customers were going to be.”
As exciting as Faraz and Dan’s entrepreneurial journey with Immuto Scientific has been thus far, there is every reason to believe the best lay ahead: the company just closed seed round financing earlier this month!
Those interested in following or learning more about Immuto Scientific are invited to visit its website here.