03 Jul Madison biotech continues its climb
Madison, Wis. – The relocation of one area biotech has resulted in a vertical move, but a nonstop commitment to innovation could take it even higher.
And while GWC Technologies, a maker of instruments for the analysis of molecular interactions on bioarrays, is not yet in the penthouse, the early-growth comany recently settled in a “nearly friction-free environment” for high-tech product development, according to president and CEO Tim Burland.
GWC, which was founded by three men building research equipment in a basement, has transferred its operations to a new wing of the MGE Innovation Center for more spacious laboratory and office facilities, and it will celebrate with a July 6 open house.
Corn & company
GWC’s history is one of innovation and collaboration, and it began with an idea from former University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry professor Rob Corn, now a professor of chemistry at the University of California-Irvine.
In 1997, Corn and colleagues Steve Weibel and Mike Green began developing a molecular imaging accessory in Weibel’s basement. The accessory is called the synchronous sampling demodulator (SSD), and it improves the performance of a tool called the Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer.
The three christened their below-the-ground floor manufacturing company GWC Instruments, LLC, and within a year they established an OEM relationship with the company now known as Thermo Electron Corp. to supply the SSDs.
And the innovations kept coming. In 1999, GWC developed and patented a more significant product, a surface plasmon resonance (SPR) spectrometer, the FT-SPR. This device is capable of detecting molecular interactions using wavelength scanning in the near infra-red region.
One year later, GWC developed its main bread-winner, the SPRimager, capable of imaging an array of samples on a two-dimensional bio-chip with the SPR technology.
That’s when the company really started to travel. In 2000, Corn received an e-mail “out of the blue” from Motoki Kyo, a Japanese researcher working for the Osaka-based Toyobo Co., Ltd., a manufacturer of natural and synthetic fibers and textiles for everything from home furnishings to industrial uses to medical products.
“He had seen our website and papers, and wanted to come out for a year to learn about our technology,” Corn said. ” I agreed to have him visit for a year, and Motoki turned out to be a wonderful scientist and a wonderful person.”
After returning to Toyobo, Motoki convinced his company to move into SPR imaging and proteomics. Now biotechnology is a major component of the Toyobo business portfolio, and they sell a proteomic array system in Japan that includes a SPRimager from GWC Technologies.
“It was our first OEM relationship for the SPRimager product, and expanded our presence in Japan, which is always a good `first-adopter’ market,” Corn said.
By developing and marketing products first and securing investment capital later, GWC has taken a unique path, Burland said.
Last year, GWC received its first outside capital from angel investor group, the Wisconsin Investment Partners, LLC, and it secured a technology venture fund loan from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce.
The next step is to grow sales by courting a new market.
The instruments GWC developed were well suited for the life sciences marketplace, but cultivating that market has been slow and difficult, Burland said. Chemists understand the usefulness of the products, but people with a background in biology need hand-holding.
As a result, GWC is looking to secure $1 million in funding to develop a more sensitive version of the SPRimager.
Fortunately, close proximity to like-minded individuals can help overcome the inertia of starting partnerships, Burland explained, and several new partnerships are flourishing within the MGE Innovation Center. GWC, which currently has five full-time employees, is working as a subcontractor with a neighboring company on a federal grant. The relationship, itself, is confidential pending resolution of patent issues, but Burland said it would not exist at all if GWC had been located elsewhere.
“Hallway conversations start projects sometimes,” Burland said. “Half a dozen companies in the building are doing related work and have common interests. We can learn from one another or partner on experiments.”
Another advantage of GWC’s upgraded location lies in the company’s increased capacity to demonstrate its products for customers and house spare instruments for neighboring labs.
“The lab is not just a product development environment,” Burland said. “It is also a sales tool in our case.”
And GWC appears poised to sell. Its products are useful to the biotechnology industry and researchers engaged in protein function analysis. GWC offers detection systems for protein interaction, antibody characterization, nucleic acid detection, and surface analysis, and its instruments have one added advantage.
Most molecular detection systems require florescent “labels” to observe protein interactions. By attaching these labels, however, researchers expose susceptible proteins to tiny chemical changes that can influence experiment precision.
“The big advantage of label-free,” Burland said, “is that you don’t have to chemically modify the proteins in order to see them.”
Protein is life
After the Human Genome Project identified the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA, scientists used mass spectrometry to identify the proteins encoded by these genes.
“What we’re doing is the step after that, where people want to know, `What do these proteins do?'” Burland said.
In technical terms, GWC’s technology utilizes surface plasmon resonance (SPR), an electro-optical effect, to help scientists analyze proteins, peptides, DNAs, RNAs, sugars, and micelles.
“Life is chemistry – which is molecules interacting – and the key functional molecules in living things are proteins,” Burland said.
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