Researchers Clint Potter and Bridget Carragher knew that scientists needed a closer, three-dimensional look at the biomolecular structures they were working with.
But it didn’t become clear there was commercial opportunity in the area until drug giant Merck & Co. sought out The Scripps Research Institute scientists for a project to characterize viruslike particles of the human papilloma virus for its recently introduced Gardasil vaccine.
“They were really excited about what we were doing,” Potter said.
Using images produced by a high-powered transmission electron microscope and vitreous freezing techniques, the scientists provided Merck a detailed look at the vaccine’s capabilities.
A $1.5 million investment by Merck Capital Ventures LLC and equipment subsidies from microscope maker FEI Co. spun their discoveries into a full-fledged nanotechnology imaging business in November called NanoImaging Services Inc. The company left Sorrento Valley in early March to allow for future growth in incubator space across from La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Golf Course, an area rich with world renowned research institutions and biotechnology companies.
The space is small by most company standards , 2,500 square feet , but allows enough room for the company’s eight employees and a transmission electron microscope about the size of a small trash compactor.
“We had one bench and basically a closet for a microscope,” Potter said about the company’s previous space.
Because a drug’s safety and effectiveness depend on the way it is made, company executives say they expect drug makers to turn to them seeking images that will allow them to develop drug compounds with greater confidence and quicker turnaround.
“Having structural information, especially when you’re trying to work with a new biological, and understanding how regular that structure is, how composable that structure is, how repeatable that structure is, may be very important as to which of those need to follow up on,” Carragher said.
Biotechnology companies seeking more information about proteins, viruses, viruslike structures, biopolymers and lipid delivery vehicles provide NanoImaging a sample and view the resulting images through a Web browser link.
The service ranges from a few thousand dollars for simple pilot studies to $50,000 for a complete structural analysis.
The company has the ability to see structures that range from 10 to 100 nanometers in size. By comparison, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
A Growing Field
The demand for nanotechnology products is expected to grow to $1.5 trillion in 10 years, according to the California Institute of Nanotechnology. And estimates show that nanotechnology could create as many as 2 million jobs in the United States by 2015.
Potter, president and chief executive officer of the new company, and Carragher, chief operating officer, say they also see opportunity in the biogenerics market, or knockoff drugs considered “biosimilar” to their traditional biologic counterparts.
“How are you really going to say if it’s really biosimilar or not?” Carragher said. “It’s going to be one of the important characterization tools.”
Carragher says that, unlike academia, the company conducts research without the need to negotiate intellectual property ownership.
“That’s one of the principal reasons for doing it as a business as opposed to academia,” Carragher said. “With us, the ownership is clearly theirs.”