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Student Dissertation Launches San Diego Life Sciences Tools Company, Sirigen

Xconomy San Diego — 

The work leading to Brent Gaylord’s dissertation on using light-emitting polymers to detect bits of DNA was more far more than an academic exercise. His initial paper, and the intellectual property that was subsequently generated, directly lead to the creation of San Diego’s Sirigen.

Gaylord co-founded Sirigen six years ago to enter a business plan competition at UC Santa Barbara, where he earned his doctorate in materials science. Sirigen won the contest, and has been moving forward ever since. Today the venture-backed diagnostics technology startup has 15 employees and formal collaborations with five companies. Gaylord, the company’s chief scientific officer, says it is too soon to identify the collaborators but assures me that “they are names you’ve heard of.” The first product using Sirigen’s technology is expected to reach the marketplace sometime next year, he says.

Sirigen has no intention of producing its own line of complete diagnostic kits or detection devices. Instead the company is pursuing an “Intel Inside” strategy of getting its technology into diagnostic products made by others. Sirigen’s polymers use high-sensitivity fluorescence (HSF) to enhance the ability of conventional assays to detect specific antigens, proteins or bits of DNA. Gaylord says the technology can detect smaller quantities of target substances than conventional tests.

Also, the technology can offer improvements over conventional immunoassays—tests that commonly use an enzyme linked to an antibody to detect the presence of drugs or pathogens, such as the viruses that cause AIDS or hepatitis. Gaylord says existing immunoassays can detect just one target at a time, but an assay that alternatively incorporates Sirigen HSF technology can sense multiple targets with little loss in accuracy.

The result is faster, and potentially cheaper, testing.

Gaylord says the technology is generating interest because it has numerous applications, ranging from biological threat detection to drug discovery. With funding from the Army, for instance, Sirigen successfully demonstrated the ability of its technology to detect a number of pathogens, including anthrax and the strain of staphylococcus bacteria responsible for food poisoning. In another example, Sirigen collaborated with Novartis to develop a research tool that allowed the Swiss drug maker to detect possible biomarkers for multiple sclerosis.

Still, it takes more than a promising technology to bring a life sciences company to the brink of commercialization in six short years. In the case of Sirigen, a number of factors helped the company reach this point.

—The importance of mentors: Gaylord’s academic advisor, UC Santa Barbara chemistry professor Guillermo Bazan, was a scientific co-founder of the company. Another early supporter was UC Santa Barbara physicist and Nobel laureate Alan Heeger, whose discovery of conductive polymers paved the way for Gaylord’s research. Having scientific heavyweights in its corner helped tiny Sirigen obtain rights to critical UC Santa Barbara patents, two of which name Gaylord as a co-inventor. Those intellectual property rights, in turn, enabled Sirigen to raise a total of $1.2 million in angel funding. “We had a tremendous amount of support in getting the company moving,” Gaylord says.

—Prove the technology on someone else’s dime: Sirigen collaborated with researchers from the Army and Bazan’s lab to develop an integrated system that could simultaneously detect multiple biological threats. The three-year project, which provided an important demonstration of Sirigen’s technology, received $2.1 million from the Army. Although the Army did not become a customer, the project gave Sirigen the scientific evidence it needed to seek out commercial partners.

—Stick to the plan: After Sirigen negotiated its first commercial deal in 2007, venture capital firms took notice. Many of them envisioned the company as a developer of point-of-care diagnostics, and offered Sirigen oodles of money. But the small company’s management team viewed the course advocated by those VCs as too long and too risky. Sirigen’s more conservative strategy called for reducing its risk through collaborations with existing tools and diagnostics producers on next-generation products. Sirigen raised about $5 million from UK investors Seraphim Capital and Oxford Capital Partners, which shared the small company’s vision.

Sirigen is now in the process of raising another $5 million to $6 million of venture funding. Gaylord says that amount will give Sirigen enough cash to support operations until the company becomes profitable, an event that’s expected in 2011. In today’s weak economy, Gaylord says, Sirigen’s conservative strategy looks attractive to possible funders, who are more focused on the potential for near-term profits and products than they were two years ago. As Gaylord says, “The future looks good.”