NABsys points the way to R.I. innovation’s future

F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to it in “The Last Tycoon” as “the whole equation.” It was a statement about making movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age and the complex framework within which motion pictures were then being made, running the gamut from script and screenplay, through stars and studios to directors and producers, with myriad other critical functions woven into the process of a successful box office production.
Decades later, we began to witness a whole equation of its own playing out in the burgeoning business of biotech. Not long ago, Joshua Boger, the founder and CEO of Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, gave a lecture at Brown University in which in eloquent fashion he drew a parallel between making motion pictures and translating innovative laboratory science into safe and effective medicines.
With the recent opening of its new headquarters in Providence’s Jewelry District, NABsys Inc. presents a most recent example of the whole equation playing out in a life sciences venture launched here in Rhode Island.
Developing a technology for reading the genetic code known as hybridization-assisted nanopore sequencing, NABsys hopes to deliver on the promise of personalized medicine by bringing DNA sequencing to clinical settings at prices that medical insurance will reimburse. As Gina M. Raimondo, Rhode Island’s general treasurer and initial venture investor in NABsys, aptly described it, “this is a company with world-class aspirations attracting world-class resources that serves as a terrific example of what might become of our efforts to build an innovation economy here in Rhode Island.”
NABsys is the result of the 2007 merger of two Brown University spin-outs, one from the departments of chemistry and computer science, the other from the department of physics. Both received initial seed funding from the Slater Technology Fund. Dr. Barrett Bready joined as CEO, having graduated from the eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education Program at Brown and Brown Medical School with interest in building a biotech company in Rhode Island. The company established a licensing/equity partnership with Brown on the initial enabling technology.
Thus far, in excess of $25 million has been raised to develop the company’s sequencing platform. In addition to equity investment from Slater totaling $1 million — $270,000 in one of the original Brown entities, $725,000 in the other – the company and its scientific collaborators have received grant funding in excess of $3 million from sources such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and Rhode Island’s Science and Technology Council. Venture capital investors, led by Providence Life Sciences Capital, Point Judith Capital Partners and Stata Venture Partners have invested in excess of $20 million in three successive rounds of follow-on financing. NABsys has recruited industry luminaries such as Lee Hood, whose lab at CalTech first developed automated DNA-sequencing instruments in the mid-1980s, and Stan Rose, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the field of genetic analysis, both of whom joined the company’s board of directors.
The company bootstrapped its way into the field by demonstrating proof of principle while operating out of Slater’s biotech incubator at Richmond Square in Providence. It recently relocated to gleaming new facilities fit out by Brown University at the gateway to the so-called Knowledge District. The view from the new offices and labs now spans from the college on the hill where the technology originated, to Brown’s Laboratories for Molecular Medicine, where it may well first be applied, to the new Warren Alpert Medical School building where it will likely be first introduced into clinical practice.
As Dr. Bready – who was honored last week as the 2011 Innovator of the Year at the sixth annual PBN Innovation Awards – suggested in his remarks at the opening of the new office, the technology being developed by NABsys holds promise of elucidating both the causation and cure for cancer. While perhaps not as entertaining as a Hollywood production, it has all and more in the way of blockbuster potential.
The story being written at NABsys is one that has been the backbone of the biotech industry in America: innovative science originating in academic labs, fueled by federal funding, and spun out for commercial development via venture capital financing. The economic- development dividends accruing to ventures conceived in this fashion are driving the innovation economy nationwide. We will do well as a community to marshal the resources to make this “whole equation” succeed more often. •

Richard G. Horan is senior managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, a state-backed economic-development fund that invests in life sciences and other technology-based sectors.

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