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NanoString Chairman Bill Young Scopes Out Diagnostic Future, Considers Bay Area Expansion

Xconomy Seattle — 

Big decisions about the future of NanoString Technologies are in the works. The Seattle-based maker of genetic analysis tools is crafting a strategy to enter the clinical diagnostics market, it expects to hire a permanent CEO within a couple months, and it may establish its headquarters to the San Francisco Bay Area to get the right leader, according to new executive chairman Bill Young.

I met with Young while he was visiting NanoString offices in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, getting to know some of the management and staff. Young is a big name in the biotech world, as the chairman of Cambridge, MA-based Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB), the former CEO of Monogram Biosciences, and chief operating officer of Genentech. Young was introduced to NanoString by a former Genentech colleague, Nick Simon, who’s now a partner with Boston’s Clarus Ventures, which led a $30 million investment in NanoString last June.

NanoString, founded in 2004 on technology from the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, is now selling a tool to help biologists examine the extent to which genes are dialed on or off in a tissue sample—what’s known as gene expression analysis. The product hit the market in July 2008, and now has customers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the National Cancer Institute, Caltech, and the University of Washington. While that may be an encouraging start, NanoString sells an expensive piece of new equipment (about $250,000), is up against some well-entrenched competitors, and has been operating without a CEO since Perry Fell resigned almost a year ago.

The top priority now, Young says, is finding permanent new leadership.

Bill Young

Bill Young

“There are some very good people in this company, very smart, very dedicated, intense people. One of the things they need is consistent leadership that can take the company to the next level,” Young says.

Quite a few candidates have been interviewed, and a few more still need to go through the process, Young says. He hopes to have an announcement of who the new CEO will be in 60 days. And while the decision hasn’t been made, Young says it’s possible that the new leader might be based in the San Francisco Bay Area, along with a portion of NanoString to support him or her. The company is looking for a rare blend of skills, in someone familiar with science and commercialization, in not just scientific instruments, but also in clinical diagnostics.

“We may keep some of the science operations, the manufacturing operations here, but have some of the company in the Bay Area. We’re open to that when we select the person,” Young says. When I followed up with NanoString’s interim CEO, Wayne Burns, he wanted to clarify that the company is “not moving headquarters, but building out commercial operations centered out of the Bay Area. We are building a distributed organization as this is necessary for our goal to build a very large company.”

NanoString at this point is still really a tool company. As I described in a November feature, the basic idea is to allow researchers to look at a large number of genes, with digital precision, to see the extent to which they are turned on or off in a given sample. It’s the sort of technology that’s supposed to … Next Page »

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  • “There are some very good people in this company, very smart, very dedicated, intense people. One of the things they need is consistent leadership that can take the company to the next level,” Young says.

    Hear, hear…
    There are great people at Nanostring, and the technology is super; it’s been the Board/leadership that’s been holding us back.
    I don’t know Mr Young but have spoken to colleagues who have worked with him and they are very very positive about him. Hopefully this thing will get it going now and we will get some value.
    Founder, Nanostring Tech