Entrepreneur Segways Toward Medical Revolution Directing Genomics X Prize
The Segway Personal Transporter was perched just inside the Starbucks door at the Kendall Square Marriott. Truth be told, I didn’t notice it going in, but I pretty much had to going out, because the person I’d just spent the last hour with unlocked the transporter, wheeled it outside, then tooled down the street beside me (I was on foot) before we said our adieus.
That person was Marc Hodosh, one of the more intriguing young innovators in the Boston environs. People who tote dirty clothes to the laundry a little more easily, enjoy a colder drink at the beach, or feel a bit more confident about the fight against terror, might owe Hodosh a small word of thanks. More on his unorthodox path to success—he dropped out of med school to pursue life as a serial entrepreneur—in a bit. In March, though, Hodosh was named senior director of the Archon X Prize for Genomics. This is the genomics equivalent of the original Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, won by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace designer Burt Rutan. Basically, Hodosh’s job is to help give away $10 million to the first team that can sequence the genomes of 100 people in 10 days for less than $10,000 per genome. “This will undoubtedly revolutionize medicine if we’re successful in this challenge,” Hodosh predicts.
Hodosh is all of 34. He came to Boston in 1995 to attend medical school at Boston University. But somewhere between anatomy and the ER he got sidetracked by students carting around big laundry bags. He got the idea for a laundry backpack called Hoosh, for Hands Free One and Only Super Huge backpack, that even sported a detergent compartment. He successfully worked a deal to offer them through Bed Bath & Beyond, before eventually deciding to let the business fade away.
But his entrepreneurial fire was ignited. After just one year of med school, “I said ‘Forget medicine,'” Hodosh recalls. Next up: soft-sided coolers outfitted with Hodosh’s patented, insulated, collapsible beverage holders. Hodosh formed a company called Glacier Extreme to make his coolers, which he sold through Toys R Us and other retailers. Things went well enough that in 1999 he sold out to California Innovations, a major cooler maker.
Hodosh is telling me all this while working on a frappuccino, followed by a white hot chocolate. He almost sheepishly points out that his early business success was in low-tech. But, the young entrepreneur says, he’s always been fascinated by high technology. He next joined Viisage, a Massachusetts face recognition company (now part of Stamford, CT-based L-1 Identity Solutions) aimed in large part at preventing terrorism, as head of business development. Then he and a colleague formed their own face recognition startup, ID One, patenting an algorithm that improved recognition by correcting for shading and facial angle variances. In the fall of 2005, they sold ID One to a still-unnamed company for a still-undisclosed amount. “Nothing that I’m retiring off of,” says Hodosh.
But it was enough to take some time off, and, I’m guessing, indulge his Segway habit. Hodosh met Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. while he was still at ID One, taking the lead in forming the Boston chapter of the FIRST Robotics Competition, Kamen’s now-global robotics contest for high school students. (If you’ve never seen a FIRST event, imagine World Wrestling Federation meets “Freaks and Geeks“—with heart-thumping rock music, a flamboyant emcee, screaming crowds, and robots competing in a variety of tasks.)
Robots, it turns out, were Hodosh’s pathway to genomics. He met an X Prize exec at the FIRST championships in Atlanta in 2006, while he was still working with Kamen as a consultant. But this March, after about a year with Kamen, he signed on to lead the genomics prize. He had no experience with genomics, he admits, but that wasn’t necessary. “They hired me as an entrepreneur,” he says. “What they needed was an entrepreneur who could take something that’s uncharted in a sense and make it happen. And those are the types of things I’m attracted to, things that haven’t been done before.”
Kamen, by the way, says the X Prize people made a great choice. “He’s a great guy,” the Segway inventor says. “He’s a man with a really good nose for technology…Half the time people are solving the wrong problem. So even if they solve it, so what? I think he’s worried about, ‘Are they solving the right problems?'”
The X Prize Foundation is headquartered in Santa Monica, CA. The foundation folks tried to get him to move out west, Hodosh says, but he declined. “The truth is Boston is an excellent place to be running the genomics prize. We’re the biotech hub of the country.” Still, he spends one week a month at the headquarters, where he has a small staff, and another week each month on the road. When he’s in town, Hodosh works out of an office in his Brookline condo, Segwaying to and from meetings when possible (he swears by the transporter’s efficacy, even in winter).
The genomics X Prize was named on behalf of its benefactor, mining multimillionaire Stewart Blusson, president of Archon Minerals of Canada. Hodosh’s job is to promote the prize, recruit and inspire teams to enter the competition, and evangelize about the promise of personalized medicine.
He’s pretty good at that already. The first sequencing of a human genome cost many millions and took years to accomplish, Hodash notes. Despite a lot of progress since then, it still costs at least $1 million and takes many months per person—not even close to what’s needed. “This has to be affordable enough and rapid enough so that individuals will be able to get their genomes sequenced, so that we can bring in this era of personalized medicine, so that we’re more proactive instead of reactive,” Hodosh says.
Accomplishing such a feat will benefit both individuals and whole populations of patients, he asserts. Say, for instance, that it becomes possible to cost-effectively sequence the genomes of 1,000 Parkinson’s patients or Alzheimer’s patients—enough to enable comparisons of the populations. This could yield tremendous insights into the causes of the diseases and their possible treatments. Perhaps even more important, genetic sequencing could bring vast improvements in preventative care, by helping people to understand what they’re at risk for, then craft strategies to minimize that risk.
So far, four teams have registered for the prize. Hodosh expects to draw more entries from around the world, but he doesn’t expect an onslaught of applicants. “It’s not a huge field. You’re not going to see hundreds of teams,” he says.
As an added bonus, the winner will get to sequence the genomes of 100 X Prize posterchildren—people like Stephen Hawking (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Larry King (heart disease), Michael Milken (prostate cancer), and Larry Page of Google fame (too much money?)—who want to help advance medical understanding. Sometime next year, the foundation will launch a major public awareness campaign to promote the prize and raise awareness of the promise of genomics.
Hodosh doesn’t expect to wait too long for the prize to be claimed. “I think it will be three to five years,” he says. If it happens sooner, that’s great too. “I like not knowing what I’m doing a few years from now.”
Chances are, though, he knows how he’ll get there: his Segway.