Mar 22, 2011
Dan Pregibon is co-founder and President of Firefly BioWorks, Inc., a Cambridge-based startup developing instruments and diagnostic assays for the detection of clinically relevant biological molecules. After obtaining his B.S. from Case Western Reserve University, Dan pursued a Ph.D. in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, where he invented a high-throughput method of printing barcoded gel microparticles on streams of liquid within microfluidic chambers. He is currently utilizing these microgels to develop cheap, easily implemented quantitative tests for DNA and RNA analytes in a wide range of biological media. In this interview with MITER, Dan reflects on his experiences as an entrepreneur and discusses the transition from graduate student researcher to company president.
Despite the immense academic interest in microfluidic technologies over the past ten years, there have been few successful attempts at commercializing such research. What steps are you taking to bridge the gap between the lab and the market in this particular field?
We are trying very hard to make a technology that plugs seamlessly into existing equipment. We want to break down the barrier to entry by keeping the technology as “familiar” as possible. We don’t believe in building a big expensive machine that does a million things. We would rather create a technology that does one thing very well and fits into an existing workflow. Market penetration can always grow from there.
Many experts have predicted that a new age of “personalized medicine” is about to dawn. What are your thoughts on the transition from reactive to predictive treatment, and in what ways will your company’s gel particle platform accelerate the process?
I agree that personalized medicine will become a huge part of healthcare. I’m especially excited about the field of companion diagnostics. It’s well known that people react differently to drugs – if we can stratify the patients that will benefit from a given drug, we will be able to eliminate the cases of patients who have dramatic side effects. We would love to be a part of the personalized medicine trend, but it takes a tremendous amount of resources for a startup to move into the diagnostics space on their own. We are exploring partnerships that might help us move in this direction.
At what point in your research career did you decide you wanted to start a company?
From the very start of my doctorate, I wanted to start a company. I hadn’t thought at all about what the company would do or who would buy our products. I just knew that I loved inventing things and that it would be great to work on something in the field of medicine, where I could directly impact peoples’ lives. The one thing I did know was that I needed to have a good idea to start the company on. This didn’t come right away. I had worked on a few different projects but it wasn’t until halfway through my doctorate that we landed on something that could actually have commercial value. And this was only because one of my experiments failed! I worked with another lab member (Dhananjay Dendukuri) to develop the fundamental technology and later got to put a medical spin on it. In the last year of my Ph.D. and throughout my post-doc work, it was fairly clear that I was going to start a company.
What role did the entrepreneurial resources at MIT play in your decision to start Firefly BioWorks?
MIT’s entrepreneurial resources played a huge role from the very beginning. The Deshpande Center not only funded our project but more importantly, provided a great deal of mentorship, contacts, and business advice. The Venture Mentoring Service, I-Teams, and Concept Clinic were all very helpful as well. As far as the decision went, while publications validated the science, these groups helped identify and validate the business opportunity.
As a chemical engineer with no formal business background, what has been the greatest challenge in starting a company?
I was very lucky to find a business partner, Davide Marini, who has helped navigate the company from very early on. He has done a very good job managing most of the business relationships, raising money, setting up partnerships, etc. It seems that some of the most challenging tasks we’ve encountered could only be made easier by experience. Setting up a company requires a broad range of knowledge that needs to be picked up fairly quickly – negotiating a license agreement, scouring the IP landscape to determine freedom to operate, hiring and deciding on compensation, getting permits, determining which law firm to use, finding lab space and negotiating a lease, outsourcing manufacturing of components, writing grants, managing technical projects…there is so much to do that it can feel overwhelming at times! We have relied heavily on the advice of friends and colleagues who have seen it all before. Our motto is to talk to everyone, see every angle of an issue, make an informed decision, and commit to it.
Which skill that you developed as a graduate student has helped you the most in your entrepreneurial efforts?
Over the course of my Ph.D., I feel that I learned how to design meaningful experiments and start troubleshooting before the experiment begins. With a company developing a new technology, time is of the essence. Every day we waste doing experiments that don’t move the technology forward puts the company at more risk. Efficiency is key. We have also learned not to re-invent the wheel. Borrow as much as you can from existing technology so you can get your technology in the hands of a customer as soon as possible.
Your company resides at the intersection of four disciplines: chemistry, biology, engineering, and materials science. How does this affect your ability to recruit talent and fill roles within your startup?
This is a great question and is something that we are currently dealing with as we hire new personnel. The fact that the project is interdisciplinary seems to draw more people to it. A lot of the people we talk with have expertise in one or two of these fields, but have expressed a strong desire to expand their knowledge and explore others. With only a few full-time people in the company at the moment, we all act a bit as jacks-of-all-trades and use consultants when we need a heavy-hitter, but we are moving to hire someone with more focused expertise in these and other fields.
What advice would you give graduate students who are seeking to commercialize their research?
Find everyone you know that has started a company and ask them a million questions. It is always interesting to hear the story of an entrepreneur, whether successful or not. I would also get involved with the entrepreneurial resources at MIT to learn more about the startup ecosystem and determine if there is a commercial need for your technology. If so, probably the most important step is to put together a team that will make the company a success. It’s important to have a well-rounded team that is passionate, hungry and clicks well together. In most cases, the technology actually comes second after the people involved.