Roopom Banerjee, the chief executive of genomic research tool maker RainDance Technologies, is aware of the criticisms facing genomics. “There’s been a lot of talk recently about how productive has the Human Genome Project really been in terms of delivering on the promise of personalized medicine,” he says.
RainDance is helping scientists conquer part of this major challenge and question in disease research: Now that we’re able to map our DNA quickly and cheaply, how do we use these vast stockpiles of genomic data to actually improve our health? The company bridges part of this gap by giving researchers the tools to rapidly perform experiments of specific genes, helping them figure out how those genes affect a variety of diseases. This could expedite the development of treatments and diagnostics personalized to individuals’ specific genetic makeup.
The Lexington, MA-based company launched its first commercial product—a system that can conduct thousands of DNA experiments every second, contained in ultra-tiny fluid droplets—in April 2009. And it’s already found an audience for the system, called the “RDT 1000,” at major research hubs such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and The Rockefeller University as well as at big drug companies like Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis.
RainDance’s micro-droplet technology is helping researchers at these institutions do what is known as targeted genetic sequencing, which involves studying specific genes within the vast genome to better understand specific illnesses such as cancer, rare diseases, autoimmune disorders, and other ailments. It’s also making these studies—which amplify specified genes using a tried and true technology known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR—faster and cheaper than previous processes by orders of magnitude.
“In the space that a customer would traditionally do one or 96 samples of PCR, we do between one and two million,” Banerjee says, “and we do it for about one-tenth of the cost.”
Founded in 2004, RainDance has been one of the stars of the research-tools industry in recent years in part because of its scientific pedigree. Jonathan Rothberg, the company’s co-founder and chairman, is a key figure in genomics. He founded and invented the technology behind the DNA sequencing system provider 454, which the Swiss healthcare products giant Roche bought in 2007 for more than $150 million. Also, RainDance has a trio of Nobel laureates—Jean-Marie Lehn, Aaron Klug, and Richard Roberts—serving as scientific advisors.
The firm’s main financial backers include Acadia Woods Partners of New York, Palo Alto, CA-based Alloy Ventures, and Mohr Davidow Ventures (a Menlo Park, CA, venture firm that has made habit of investing in firms involved in personalized medicine). RainDance doesn’t disclose how much money it has raised from investors, but Banerjee says that the total is in the tens of millions of dollars.
Banerjee, whose appointment as CEO was revealed in February, is the latest lead player to be added to RainDance’s roster. It was a personnel move that surprised some industry watchers because Banerjee, who says he spent the first half of his career in research and the other in finance, came to his current job without the typical operational experience. But Banerjee spent the last nine or ten months of his previous job as director of healthcare investment banking at Boston-based Leerink Swann working as a strategic advisor to RainDance, he says. Banerjee says he proved his expertise in the genomic research tools sector and grew close to then company CEO Christopher McNary, who eventually recruited Banerjee to take his job. When Banerjee took over as CEO, McNary stepped into the role of chief commercial officer.
Still, I asked Banerjee why he thinks he was recruited for his job.
“Having taken a number of companies public and having sold a number of companies in this sector,” Banerjee says, “I think the board felt that I’d be able to craft a longer-term vision both in terms of the innovation strategy and to engineer the right kind of exit for the company.”
For sure, Banerjee has lots of Wall Street and industry connections from his Leerink days that could pay dividends for RainDance, particularly in an initial public offering or a M&A deal with a larger outfit in the research tools sector. Yet for now, the CEO says, his goal is to build the 70-person firm into a large company.
It’s difficult to track the firm’s growth, since RainDance is privately held and doesn’t disclose financial data of any kind, really. Banerjee says the company had “one of the faster sales launches” in the industry last year. Thus far in 2010, the firm has exceeded sales from last year, and the CEO says he expects to have more than double the number of sales this year than in 2009. With sales organizations already in the U.S. and Europe, he says, the firm is now in the process of launching sales in Asia.
To the extent RainDance can help finally deliver on the promise of personalized medicine, the company has the potential to be very successful.