Lee Hood’s Startup for Personalized Medicine, Integrated Diagnostics, Hires First CEO

3/29/10Follow @xconomy

Integrated Diagnostics, the Seattle-based company seeking to carry out biotech pioneer Leroy Hood’s vision for personalized medicine, has hired its first CEO.

The company’s new leader is Albert Luderer, a veteran diagnostics executive who ran Woburn, MA-based BioTrove until that company was acquired last November by Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) for an undisclosed sum. Luderer’s name may be familiar to some Seattle biotechies from his stint running Bellevue, WA-based Light Sciences earlier in the 2000s.

This is a critical hire for a fledgling company like Integrated Diagnostics, known as InDi. The company, founded by Hood and David Galas at the Institute for Systems Biology and their Caltech colleague Jim Heath, took its first big step as a company in October. That’s when it secured the first $7.5 million out of a $30 million founding venture capital round from InterWest Partners, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, and Germany-based dievini Hopp Biotech holding, part of a collaboration with the government of Luxembourg. The company, one of the boldest visions of Hood’s long career, aspires to create a new wave of diagnostic tests that can spot signature proteins in a pinprick of blood that are associated with certain cancers, or Alzheimer’s disease.

This work has the potential to shake up the healthcare system in three big ways, Hood has said. It will make it possible for doctors to detect diseases much earlier; it will pave the way for more individually tailored therapies that are more likely to pass clinical trials; and it will allow doctors to follow up with patients to see if treatments they prescribe are really working at the molecular level. While diagnostics have traditionally been low-price, low-margin commodities that take a backseat to drugs, this new wave of truly predictive diagnostics could become more valuable to the healthcare system than today’s one-size-fits-all drugs.

Albert Luderer

Albert Luderer

InDi (pronounced like “Indy”) considered some CEO candidates from outside the Seattle area to carry out this vision. But Luderer has agreed to move back from Massachusetts to Seattle to build the company here in the Northwest.

“Lee knew my background when we met, and he said he was looking for someone who could crystallize the vision and turn the science into a commercial vehicle. That’s what I do,” Luderer says.

BioTrove, which makes a “universal test tube” to speed up the efficiency of genetic analysis, ended up as a success, even though it wasn’t able to follow through with an IPO in 2008 when the capital markets crashed. The death of the IPO meant that Luderer didn’t have enough cash there to take BioTrove’s successful life sciences tool business into a potentially broader market like diagnostics, as he intended.

But Luderer has a lot of experience in diagnostics over the course of his 30-year career. He held senior positions at Dianon Systems (now part of Lab Corp of America); and Boehringer Mannheim (now owned by Roche), as well as Corning. He helped create Siemens Diagnostics through a joint venture with Ciba Corning. Luderer also knows how to speak the language of science, with a doctorate in immunogenetics from Rutgers.

Why did he take this job? Money was important, and not in the sense you might think at first blush. He has been working for the past decade in venture-backed companies, spending most of his time raising money instead of really focusing on the science and commercial aspects of the CEO’s job.

So Luderer first spoke with David Barker of the Wellcome Trust, and then met with Arnold Oronsky of InterWest Partners. The purpose, he says, was to “get a feel for where their heads were” in terms of the vision for Integrated Diagnostics, and whether they would provide enough resources for him to focus on building the business instead of fundraising. Then it came time to meet with Hood.

“My big question for Lee was, ‘To what extent will you be involved going forward?’” Luderer says. “The answer tells you a lot about whether he’s really committed. He could just say, ‘OK, I’m done now, call me when you’re finished.’ Instead, his answer was that he believes this is possibly the most important thing he will do in his career, that the Institute for Systems Biology has people working on these problems, and he’ll be extraordinarily active through the life of the company. That’s what I wanted to hear.”

With a vision as big and broad as Hood’s, the natural question then is, where do you focus your efforts first to get some traction? It will take years to develop the technology before it can reach the marketplace. It will certainly take focus and discipline.

In these early days, the company’s energy is being channeled into lung cancer, Luderer says. The company and its academic collaborators are running experiments now that are seeking to find trace amounts of signature proteins in the bloodstream that come from that specific organ.

InDi hopes to find precise molecular markers that correlate with worse signs of disease that can be seen later on with conventional imaging like that from a CT scan. Some early results should be available by May, and if positive, then InDi could be in position to go about gathering some rigorous proof from prospectively-designed clinical trials that could spot the markers early, and follow up with patients over time to see if they do indeed develop the lung tumors as predicted. The blood test will be valuable to physicians because it will be used to assist existing CT diagnostics that often don’t provide a conclusive result, Luderer says.

If these experiments go well, then the same principles could be applied to other tumor types that spill off into the blood from other organs, Luderer says. Further in the future, InDi hopes to detect signature proteins in the blood that are early signs of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

InDi is pretty small right now, with just eight employees. Half are chemists in Los Angeles positioned near the Heath lab at Caltech, while the rest are in one of the Institute for Systems Biology’s office buildings. Luderer doesn’t sound like he plans to spend big bucks on expansion or some new lab space in Seattle, although InDi does have four open positions on its website.

I got the sense it wasn’t an easy decision for Luderer to move back to Seattle for this gig from Boston. He said he thinks he’s on his eighth house now, during his career of moving around for new opportunities in biotechnology. But he says he didn’t want to be seen as arrogant like some CEOs, who might have insisted on building the company around themselves and their home location.

“I asked myself, ‘Where is the information coming from?’ Really the main focal point is the Institute for Systems Biology,” Luderer says. “And with Lee’s direct involvement, you really need to make the most of his input, and you can’t do that from Boston, you need to do that on the home court.”

We at Xconomy expect to hear more directly from Hood about this emerging company, and the new CEO, during the event we’re organizing today from 1:30 pm to 6:30 pm at the University of Washington. We look forward to seeing quite a few of you there.

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