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Lab Work a Labor of Love for Self-Starting Virapur Scientist

BY MARION WEBB

After two decades of chasing a meandering career track, Marylou Gibson feels like she’s leading the way for other female scientists who are struggling to balance career and family life.

Before starting her small biotech venture, Virapur LLC, in Sorrento Mesa in 2000, the 55-year-old Ph.D. scientist re-created job successes wherever the career of her ex-husband, who is also a scientist, led her.

“It’s hard for women scientists to have a family life and make a career,” said Gibson, president and chief scientific officer at Virapur and mother of three children. “You always have to give up something.”

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Today, Gibson is still juggling full-time work at Virapur with teaching courses part time at UC San Diego Extension and at the San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. She unwinds with theatrical performances as a singer-musician-actress and takes center stage with daughters Grace, 12, Eve, 16, and Madeline, 18.

Only, now she’s doing things her way: “One of the main reasons to form a business was to do science on my own terms, have time for my children, create my own hours, and be useful to the scientific community,” she said.

When she solicited partners to start a business based on simplifying the costly and time-consuming process of purifying viruses and having researchers experiment with ways to treat diseases such as cystic fibrosis and hemophilia, people looked at her as if she was crazy.

One unnamed, silent partner stepped up with $10,000 and along with $10,000 from Gibson’s own savings she started Virapur. She worked out of her partner’s garage while working full time as the executive director of product development at San Diego-based biotech Collateral Therapeutics Inc., now part of Germany’s Schering AG. For two years, they repackaged manufactured research kits and sold them to Internet clients.

“We went from selling hundreds of kits in the first year to up to 1,000 over the next two years,” Gibson recalled. Today, Virapur’s three full-time employees sell different sizes of purification kits, which range in price from $25 to $150, to more than 40 corporate and academic research clients locally and internationally.


Aiming For $1M Revenue

Rob Robbins, Virapur’s chief financial officer, expects to hit the $1 million revenue mark this year or in 2009, up from revenues of $660,000 in 2007. “The kit business is very large and we can only tap into a small segment of it with our virus purification kits,” Robbins said.

He estimates the company will grab at least a $5 million share of the annual market for virus purification kits, noting that trade journals don’t list figures for this niche.

Virapur is tiny compared to its large rivals, La Jolla-based Stratagene Corp., a unit of Santa Clara-based technology leader Agilent Technologies Inc., which reported $5.4 billion in net revenue in fiscal 2007, and Germany’s Sartorius AG, whose technology group alone earned pro forma sales revenue of 622.7 million euros, currently equivalent to $981.68 million, in 2007. But Gibson cited broad expertise as a competitive edge.

“There is competition out there, but we are small enough that we don’t need every job,” she said. “We appeal to smaller companies who like to work with a local firm.”

Fred H. Gage, a professor at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute in La Jolla and an early Virapur client, praised Gibson for going the extra mile to meet the laboratories’ needs and delivering a first-class product.

“She works with you,” Gage said. “You can send her plasmids and she sends them with a virus ready to use. With the amount of time a technician takes to make a virus, it’s much more cost-effective if Virapur makes it for us commercially.”

Gibson sets targets for Virapur’s growth in terms of volume and capacity, but has no plans to go public or sell. She enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss after years of working for other bosses in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

Gibson grew up in a lower middle-class family in the mill town of Lawrence, Mass. She inherited her scientific aptitude from her father, who ran a garage fixing trucks, and her love of the arts from her mother, a homemaker. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she also met her ex-husband.

After marrying in 1983 and finishing her post-doctoral fellowship in 1984, Gibson built an impressive resume working at Molecular Genetics Inc. in Minnetonka, Minn., Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute and Immunex Corp. (now Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks) in Seattle, and Molecular Medicine LLC (now Molecular Medicine BioServices Inc. in Carlsbad) and Collateral Therapeutics (now part of Schering AG in Germany) in San Diego. Gibson feels fortunate to have re-created success in cities she loved for different reasons: Minnesotans for their Midwestern ethics and Seattle for being a green wonderland.


Creative Outlets

These days, the Carlsbad resident is also reinventing her artistic talents: She belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Solana Beach and is the church choir’s lead soprano.

Last year, she appeared in the San Diego City College production of the musical “Gypsy” in which she taught one of the stripper characters to play the bugle. She plays the violin and French horn and prepares floral arrangements.

“Everything interests me,” she said.


Marion Webb is a Rancho Bernardo-based freelance writer.

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