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what could otherwise look like a service for the tiniest of research niches.
“We think our customers should be able to order like they do on Amazon, track like FedEx, and analyze your data like iTunes,” Robins says.
There are a couple of competitors trying to do similar things. San Francisco-based Sequenta, which I wrote about last week, raised $13 million in a Series B venture round to pursue an immune profiling strategy for diagnostic purposes. Another contender is Huntsville, AL-based iRepertoire.
Adaptive TCR, like any company just a year old, has a lot of work to do on setting up operations. It had about 10 employees when I stopped by for a meeting with Robins in late October, and plans to grow to about 30 or 40 people in the next year, Robins says. It waited until October to start doing marketing of the product, partly because the CEO was afraid he would get inundated with orders before the company had the right processes in place to handle them all.
I made sure to make Robins walk me through the business model in detail so I understood how he arrived at some of the bullish projections. The company offers four different tiers of service, based on how much resolution the researcher wants from the sample. The range runs from $500 per sample on the low end to $7,500 per sample at the top of the line. If, say, a big drugmaker or academic coalition was running a clinical trial of 250 patients and wanted to know about immune responses in those patients, the bills really start adding up fast. That’s because it’s likely researchers would want to take multiple snapshots of samples at three, four, maybe five different points in time to see how the immune system adapts in response to the vaccine or therapy.
If this kind of idea catches on Big Pharma, then there could be a whole lot of packages coming through Adaptive TCR on a regular time schedule. This is why Robins brought up logistics several times during our conversation. “We are working very hard on scaling the business and operational excellence,” he says.
Robins wouldn’t say anything about actual revenues, but I was able to gather that his company has essentially doubled its academic customer base in the last seven weeks. There were VCs sniffing around the company back in October, doing some of their due diligence, along with strategic corporate investors who were showing interest. Robins said he didn’t need the money right now, although he was weighing the pros and cons of whether to take it.
The founders aren’t sure where this business will lead. They drew up a long list of possible applications they imagined, although customers keep asking them whether the service can do something specific that had never been thought of before. One postdoc in particular approached the company’s booth at the American Society of Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics conference in Hollywood, FL in September.
The postdoc marveled at how the Adaptive TCR method was able to generate 1,000 times as much data to characterize T cell diversity in three days as he was able to generate in three years of painstaking work with an older technology. “The level of excitement for this technology is palpable,” Robins says.
High expectations can also be a curse, as many entrepreneurs know. Robins says he’s thinking hard about how not to mess this up. It’s not good enough to just perform the sequence runs and send the data back to the customer. And that has everything to do with old-fashioned business principles, and nothing to do with whiz-bang gene sequencing or cloud computing.
“Customers expect customer relations, and some help, especially the first time through,” Robins says. “There is a human element to this.”