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New Platypus Technologies CEO ready for key product launch

Jeff Williams
Madison, Wis. - Jeff Williams has no illusions about why he was appointed chief executive of Platypus Technologies. His mission, and the company's mission, is to start actively commercializing the combination "bio" and "nano" technology that has been under development inside its New Venture Center facility.

Platypus, which helps researchers study chemical reactions with the help of nano-structured surfaces, is closer to launching a key assay, and Williams has ample experience bringing products to market at career stops like Roche Diagnostics and Ambion Diagnostics, where he was responsible for the commercialization of several FDA-regulated products.

Platypus' unique combination of biotech and nanotech was intriguing enough for him to come back to Madison, where he earned bachelor of science and PhD degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and worked for Promega Corp.

“That was a very large factor, the combination of the two,” Williams said. “I have 20 years of molecular diagnostic and molecular biology experience, and to see how the Platypus nanotechnology could impact the future of both the molecular diagnostics and the molecular testing business was very interesting to me.”

Product line-up
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The most advanced Platypus technology, a cell migratory assay that provides a way to measure the movement of cells, is about to hit the market. With beta testing now completed in an assortment of eight university and private sector labs, including Harvard and UW-Madison, the company plans to launch the assay on Aug. 20.

“The total national market for cell migration is $35 million annually, but we believe we can capture a fairly large piece of that - 15 to 20 percent,” Williams said.

Researchers would use this assay for several reasons, principally its ability to mimic cancer metastases and gain more knowledge about why, for example, prostate cancer cells tend to move to bone marrow, and breast cancer cells tend to move to the liver and lungs.

Platypus considers its cell migratory assay to be superior in part because it takes less time to get results and it provides microscopic analysis of cells that are moving. This allows researchers to look at what receptors might be on the surface of these cells, which might lead to screens for drugs that inhibit the spread of cancer.

Not as far down the road to commercialization is an anti-body assay that still is under development. Platypus is trying to narrow the potential targets and probably is still nine months away from launching a product. The antibody assay is a liquid crystal-based product that the company hopes will replace its first target - ELISA, the Enzyme Linked Immunoassay.

ELISA is considered the gold standard in antibody capture, but Platypus has produced an assay that cuts testing time to one hour (compared to ELISA's two to six hours) and allows more effective monitoring of Epizootic (animal to human) diseases.

Platypus is confident that both assays offer the sustainable market advantage coveted by venture capitalists. “They have the potential of simplifying the read out,” Williams explained, “and they are ideally suited for miniaturization.”

Other products under development are biosensors to detect toxic gas. While there are Homeland Security applications, Platypus has received a $2.3 million grant from the Department of Defense to develop the biosensors.

Five-year plan

In five years, Williams sees Platypus hitting its stride with revenues in the $15 to $20 million range, and with about 100 employees.

The biggest barrier to reaching those milestones is venture capital. The company will likely need a fairly significant round - about $5 million - to get there, and the lab success should make things smoother on the capital front.

To advance its technologies, Platypus thus far has received over $13 million in federal funds and $3 million in angel financing, all from individual investors.

Due to the synergies made possible by proximity, there always is a preference for local venture capital, but followers of the Wisconsin biotechnology industry have taken notice of the $3 million received by the Madison-based CDI Bioscience from Battelle Ventures, a New Jersey venture capital firm. It marks the continuation of a trend toward more outside venture capital than Wisconsin companies are accustomed to.

“We're certainly not going to limit our efforts to just local,” Williams said. “We're going to look as broadly as necessary.”

Key hire

From his various career stops, Williams has come to understand the importance of being at the forefront of technology, and the ability to reach the worldwide market. Finding a partner in “big pharma” or another industry will be essential to distributing Platypus technologies worldwide, and Platypus is in discussions with several organizations.

Williams succeeds former CEO Barb Israel, who founded the company along with Drs. Nicholas Abbott and Christopher Murphy in April 2000. Israel will continue to serve the organization as a board member and a consultant, and she will devote some of her time to Echometrix, a software start up that has been spun out of UW-Madison.

With products launches, the company also plans to expand its marketing and executive staff, the latter with a new chief technology officer, but Israel said Williams is the key hire.

“He's got a very extensive background in biotechnology,” she noted. “A lot of the risk of the company is behind us, but it's moving pretty far along in interesting ways.”

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