How U researchers leveraged internal resources to launch a tech start-up

Published by CTSI on September 27, 2017

Core Biome co-foundersCoreBiome commercializes the technology developed by three University researchers: Drs. Kenneth Beckman, Daryl Gohl, and Dan Knights (left to right). Together they founded CoreBiome and continue to lead the company today. Drs. Beckman and Gohl serve in leadership roles at the University of Minnesota Genomics Center, while Knights is an Assistant Professor in the College of Science & Engineering and a recipient of the CTSI Community Health Collaborative Grant.

One of the major challenges faced by technology start-ups is proving the technology can deliver as promised. CoreBiome, an early-stage company offering microbiome analysis services, cleared that hurdle with support from CTSI and several other University entities.

Two of CoreBiome’s founders received support from the CTSI-administered Translational Product Development Fund (TPDF) to conduct critical proof-of-principle experiments. This generated data that ultimately helped lead to the company’s formation by attracting business talent, investors, and customers.

“We just recently launched our start-up, yet we’ve already attracted customers and $800,000 in seed funding,” says Daryl Gohl, PhD, R&D Lead at the University of Minnesota Genomics Center (UMGC).
“I don’t think we’d be where we are now without TPDF support, which enabled us to prove our technology’s commercial viability.”

I don't think we'd be where we are now without TPDF support, which enabled us to prove our technology's commercial viability.

— Dr. Daryl Gohl 

Unleashing the microbiome’s potential

CoreBiome Laboratory Scientist and U of M alumna Jordan Jensen prepares microbiome DNA samples for sequencing, a process called library preparationCoreBiome Laboratory Scientist and U of M alumna Jordan Jensen prepares microbiome DNA samples for sequencing, a process called library preparation.A few years ago, Dr. Gohl and University collaborators Kenneth Beckman, PhD, and Dan Knights, PhD, set out to develop better methods for sequencing the microbiome so scientists could understand the microbial communities that shape human, animal, and plant health. 

They envisioned this would open the door to new ways of controlling harmful microbial processes or facilitating beneficial ones. For example, insights could lead to treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections or better ways of removing toxins from contaminated water.

The practical potential is exciting, yet the potential for error during the sequencing process is high. The three researchers and their broader team worked to find a solution, eventually developing technology that generates more accurate genomic profiles of microbiomes.

They began kicking around the idea of starting a company but, like many aspiring startups, they would need funding to rigorously test their technology and position it for commercial success.

Commercializing their technology with CTSI support

To do this, Drs. Gohl and Beckman, who directs the UMGC, applied for and received a $50,000 award through the Translational Product Development Fund (TPDF) to develop synthetic DNA controls for the microbiome sequencing process.

TPDF advances health discoveries that have the potential to be commercialized, and is a joint initiative among CTSI’s Office of Discovery and Translation (ODAT), the Mayo Clinic Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics (an initiative supported by the State of Minnesota).

TPDF has supported 15 projects since the program began in 2014. To-date, this program has received $4.5 million to further aid in commercializing research by University and Mayo faculty.

ODAT grantees are provided support from a Project Development Team customized to meet the goals of their project.

A high-throughput liquid-handling device used to prepare the thousands of micobiome samples that CoreBiome analyzes.A high-throughput liquid-handling device used to prepare the thousands of microbiome samples that CoreBiome analyzes.

The blend of funding and expert guidance enabled them to conduct proof-of-principle experiments that would shape efforts to refine the technology, and ultimately demonstrate its feasibility.

“With TPDF support, we could prove that CoreBiome technology can help generate accurate, reproducible genomic profiles of microbial communities,” explains Dr. Gohl. “Reaching this technological milestone was critical, as accurate profiling is central to how we add value for our customers.”

Nailing down the technology increased CoreBiome’s odds for success among investors, as Dale Nugent, a Venture Development Executive with the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC), explains:

“TPDF support helped CoreBiome advance its technology to the point of being commercially viable, and gave them the data to back up that claim. This reduced the overall risk of their venture, and allowed them to skip the step of convincing investors to fund proof-of-principle experiments.”

TPDF support helped CoreBiome advance its technology to the point of being commercially viable, and gave them the data to back up that claim. This reduced the overall risk of the venture, and allowed them to skip the step of convincing investors to fund proof-of-principle experiments.

—Dale Nugent, UMN's Office for Technology Commercialization

CoreBiome is the sixth University start-up that has been launched for an ODAT-supported technology, with other companies including Andarta Medical and EmboMedics.

Rallying around CoreBiome

Drs. Gohl, Beckman, and Knights received support from several other University groups, in addition to CTSI.

For example, Nugent and his team at the Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) provided ongoing coaching and support for making the jump from business idea to reality.

This included filing the patent, recommending next steps to build the business, preparing for the fundraising process, and enlisting Carlson School of Management interns to aid in developing a business plan, competitive analysis report, and financial model. OTC also made key introductions, suggesting that CoreBiome join the gBeta accelerator program.

Plus, the OTC-administered Discovery Capital Investment Program awarded seed funding to CoreBiome, matching what it had already received from investors outside the University.

This DNA sequencer in CoreBiome’s lab can generate the equivalent of ~45 human genomes of sequence data in a just over a day. Data is then uploaded to the cloud and analyzed using CoreBiome's analysis software, which generates a microbiome profile for eacThis DNA sequencer in CoreBiome’s lab can generate the equivalent of ~45 human genomes of sequence data in a just over a day. Data is then uploaded to the cloud and analyzed using CoreBiome's analysis software, which generates a microbiome profile for each sample.

Drs. Beckman, Gohl, and Knights also garnered grants to develop microbiome sequencing technology from two other University-associated groups: the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics and MN-REACH.

In addition, the MN-REACH Medical Technology Boot Camp and Value Proposition Design Workshop (joint programs with MIN-Corps) trained the CoreBiome team on how to position and commercialize their technology. There, they uncovered insights that shaped how they would provide their technology (e.g., as a full service rather than a kit), and which market niches to target.

“Several University programs supported CoreBiome in a complementary way,” says Tucker LeBien, PhD, who serves as the Academic Health Center’s Associate Vice President for Research and directs CTSI’s Office of Discovery and Translation. “Each program added distinct value, yet worked together toward the common goal of getting CoreBiome up and running.”

Dr. Gohl agreed, adding, “University-wide support positioned us for success as we made the jump from scientific breakthrough to viable business.”

Delivering real-world value

These support mechanisms combined with the hard work and savvy of the CoreBiome team culminated in patent-pending technologies that blend genomics with machine learning to generate rich information about microbial communities.

By getting our technology out of the lab and into the marketplace, we are laying the groundwork for real-word applications that can improve people's lives and the environment we live in.

—Dr. Daryl Gohl

Insights generated by CoreBiome enable pharmaceutical, agricultural, and environmental organizations to better understand microbial communities in humans, plants, and animals. This ultimately promises to accelerate new discoveries, from medical treatments to more sustainable ways of increasing crop yields and raising animals. 

Harnessing the power of the microbiome to create a better future is what drives Dr. Gohl forward, as he explains:

“By getting our technology out of the lab and into the marketplace, we are laying the groundwork for real-world applications that can improve people’s lives and the environment we live in.”

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