Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


A Start-up Kind of Summer for Impact Proteomics

Innovation and creative ideas are nothing new for Biological Sciences professor Jonathan Minden. The inventor of the technique 2D-difference gel electrophoresis, Minden is always coming up with new ideas to put into motion in his lab. One of his latest ideas is to create a universal method for proteome purification, in an effort to unify the field and make proteomics research more accessible. In order to understand whether this idea had commercialization potential, he assembled a team consisting of Amber Lucas, a 3rd year Ph.D. student working in his lab, and Cindy Chepanoske, manager of Business Development & Licensing at the CMU Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation. Together, they sought to understand how to take the idea of a universal proteome purification method out of the lab and into the market to form a successful start-up.   

Nine out of ten start-ups fail, and the number one cause of failure is a misunderstanding of what customers need and are willing to pay for. This is especially true for academic start-ups because often academics are isolated from the needs of industry and pharma, which are the two sectors that spend the most money in the market. That is why the NSF, NIH, and many others institutions have begun to establish programs to help academics better understand the needs of the consumer in order to secure the transition of ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Minden and his team, named Impact Proteomics, applied and were accepted into one such program known as the Innovation Corps (I-Corps), founded by the NSF. The I-Corps program, which was initiated during CMU President Subra Suresh’s tenure as NSF Director, is an intense 7-week course, requiring 100 interviews with potential customers and partners, as well as weekly meetings to cover curriculum on how to successfully convert experimental knowledge in the lab into products and start-ups that will be successful and benefit society. Impact Proteomics traveled over 14,000 miles across the country and talked to scientists in a multitude of different fields over the course of the 7-week program in order to gain important knowledge to guide their ideas forward.

The first shock to Impact Proteomics came on day one of the I-Corps kick off. Their first assignment was to talk to 15 people in the Austin, TX area in two days. They had set up many interviews with researchers at UT Austin, UTSA, and UTHSC only to be surprised when the instructors told them not to focus on members of academia. Academics historically struggle with funding and purchase in low volumes, so they are not the desired customers for success at the start-up phase. Instead, Impact Proteomics was forced out of their comfort zone and pushed to contact people in industry and pharma, where money is abundant and purchases tend to come in higher volumes. While this task seemed daunting at first, with the help of some successful CMU alumni entrepreneurs, they were able to get their foot in the door and talk to people at some of the largest companies in the world, including Merck, Genetech, Vertex, Novartis, and many others.

The second surprise came after talking to people in industry and realizing that their initial hypothesis on what customers wanted was not entirely accurate. They went into the program with the hypothesis that people in the field cared about dynamic range, and if their product could improve dynamic range then consumers would be willing to pay for it. This was quickly invalidated as they went from company to company and talked to actual users. What people really cared about was improving experimental reproducibility and being able to automate sample preparation in order to save money on employee time and attendance. Luckily, the CMU team was able to quickly pivot in order to focus on these aspects. After the pivot and many more customer interviews, they learned that 78% of the potential customers that they talked to are willing and ready to spend money on this kind of product. Impact Proteomics was not the only team in the I-Corps program that had to pivot. Out of the 19 teams that participated, 17 pivoted by the end of the 7-week program, speaking volumes to how important it is to get out of the building and talk to the people who will be buying, selling, and using the products you want to put on the market.

By the end of the I-Corps program, Impact Proteomics was able to successfully identify a product-market fit and make a commercialization plan to shape their ideas and experiments in the lab moving forward. They remain active in the area, participating in the I-Corps site at CMU as well as acting as the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial ambassador for Breakout Labs. They hope that they can take their experience in the NSF I-Corps program and use that knowledge to create a successful start-up that can help make a long-standing impact in the field of proteomics.

By: Amber Lucas