Shoreline Biome is one of many biotech startups working out of the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP). Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Thomas Jarvie, Co-Founder and CEO of Shoreline Biome about his involvement with the TIP and what it takes to get a biotech startup up and running.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: How did Shoreline Biome get started?
THOMAS JARVIE: Mark Driscoll and I were doing product development at 454 Life Sciences, which was a biotech startup company in Branford, CT. The company was at the forefront of developing DNA sequencing machines. It became a big thing and now it’s a huge thing.
Because it was such a big thing, Roche, the giant Swiss pharmaceutical and diagnostic company, bought 454 in 2007. In 2015, Roche decided to shut down its operations in Connecticut and move everything to California. Roche was really gracious in how it laid people off. We had 18 months’ notice. We were given a choice: move to California; move to Madison, WI; move to Basel, Switzerland; or be laid off.
I had shared an office with Mark for many years and we had been hypothetically talking about starting a company. The hypothetical became a reality with the change in the job status. We were thinking if we wanted to start a company, now we have plenty of time to plan. So we both chose to get laid off and we started a company.
IDH: And you continued your work with microbiome sequencing.
TJ: Right. We had developed this new microbiome sequencing technology. We could see that understanding the human microbiome, the collection of beneficial bacteria that live in and on you, was going to be really important for diagnostics and therapeutics, so we thought this is a really great place to start a company.
IDH: What makes the procedure you came up with new and innovative?
TJ: If you have an environmental sample with bacteria in it, if you want to find out the DNA sequences of the bacteria in there you can use little bits of the DNA sequence to identify things. You need to break open all the bacteria to get a little fingerprint chunk of DNA and then you need to get it ready to do the DNA sequencing.
A lot of companies already do different parts of those things. We thought it would be really great to have a product that did everything all at once rather than go to a different vendor for each part of the process.
We really wanted to make the process comprehensive—meaning we could see all the different bacteria. We also wanted it to be cost-competitive and easy to use. Another thing we focused on was breaking open all of the bacteria to get all of the DNA out to be sequenced.
How do people currently do this research in the lab? Depending on which method they use, it takes between 10 and 15 hours total time to do 100 samples.
We thought we can definitely do better than that. So we have it down to 2 hours of time with 15 minutes of hands-on time. That revolutionizes things.
People in the lab love our technology. They can spend a lot less time and they can move on to getting their experiments done.
IDH: How did you become aware of the UConn Technology Incubation Program?
TJ: George Weinstock, who is at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine across the street from the TIP, had just moved to Connecticut in 2014. He was one of the people who was an early microbiome researcher. He was also one of the first 454 customers, so we knew him personally.
We called him up, welcomed him to Connecticut, told him we were going to launch a startup, and asked if we could get some advice. He told us he wanted to be part of the startup and act as our scientific advisor.
In terms of where to locate, we have a formal sponsored research agreement with Jackson Lab. And, with the University of Connecticut Health Center right next door, we figured we could get access to clinicians. We found out the UConn TIP was across the street and it made perfect sense.
IDH: Tell us about your involvement with the TIP. How has it helped your startup?
TJ: Being in the TIP is really nice because you’re with companies that are in a very similar boat, or they’re slightly ahead of or behind you. You can ask the people who are slightly ahead of you: Where did you find your lawyer? And then you can tell the people who are slightly behind you: Here’s how I found my lawyer.
The TIP also brings in a lot of resources. There are programs and you have access to people from local law firms, accounting agencies, and Connecticut Innovations, so you can go and ask them questions.
You can also work in-depth with two in-residence people—one specializes in marketing and sales and the other specializes in finance. So, there’s a truckload of resources.
IDH: Shoreline Biome received some funding. What was that process like and how is the startup using those funds?
TJ: We got a $30,000 grant from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Inc. last summer, which was fantastic because we are going to be a manufacturing company. We plan to make these kits and sell them. And, if you want to make something, you need to have a quality manufacturing system.
We also received two batches of money from Connecticut Innovations. At the beginning we got a pre-seed fund, which is given to young, starting companies to help them get off the ground. You have to provide Connecticut Innovations with a very well thought out business plan and a scientific plan. Once they award you the money, they essentially mentor you as you’re starting up.
And then in June 2016, we got the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF), which we used to work directly with George at Jackson labs. We’re working on clinical human samples for people who have Clostridium difficile infection. We’re developing our tools as a general human microbiome tool so we can look at all the bacteria and have the kits and a process to do it.
We also wanted to see how well our process did on clinical samples. In our earliest results, it looks like we are superior to the other human microbiome methods. Now, whether the clinicians will find that better and of clinical importance is a different story.
And what do I mean by “better?” We cannot just identify Clostridium difficile, but we can also identify a particular strain of Clostridium difficile. Whether clinicians who are treating people with Clostridium difficile will find out a benefit or not, remains to be seen.
IDH: Is that the target market? Clinicians?
TJ: The market initially would be academic researchers and clinicians who are doing translational research. They’re taking the scientific stuff and trying to translate it into clinical practice.
It’s not an approved clinical diagnostic or anything like that. That’s why they call it translational, because it’s making the translation from science to clinical practice.
So we would sell to academic researchers, such as George Weinstock. One of our collaborators is Professor Joerg Graf at UConn Storrs. We also have a collaboration with Dr. David Hafler, who is the chief of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine.
IDH: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a startup? Are they purely science-related?
TJ: There are obviously the science-related challenges. You have this concept and you have to question: Will it work? Can we make it work reproducibly? Will it be really what customers want? That’s maybe the biggest challenge—translating from science to a product that scientists will use.
Also, just setting up a company is a real challenge if you’ve never done it before. How do you know where to find a lawyer? How do you find an accountant? How do you set up an accounting system?
We’ve also had quite a few interactions with SECT Tech, a team of entrepreneurs and bioscience executives. They help with your pitch and give you guidance.
IDH: It sounds like you’ve received some significant guidance and mentorship along the way.
TJ: Yes, quite a bit.
IDH: In terms of the startup process, is there anything that surprised you—something you wish you had known ahead of time?
TJ: Practically everything! One thing I will say is that, for a guy who started out life as a scientist, raising money is a real challenge, because I don’t naturally think like a finance person and all the people with the money think like finance people.
You have to figure out how to put things into a language they’ll understand and appreciate. Because I can say: This is the coolest science! Isn’t this amazing? And the investors will agree, but then they’ll ask: But how are you going to make me money? And I could say: Isn’t it obvious?!
So, for me—and I would say from talking to the other entrepreneurs here at the TIP—that’s really the big challenge.
Another thing about launching a startup is, I definitely hadn’t appreciated how much of an emotional roller coaster it is. Some days you come in and something bad happened in the lab. You think: We’re doomed—it’s going to take us two months to figure this out! And then later that day, you get an investment and you say: We’re flying high—we have to money to figure it out!
But the startup experience is amazingly rewarding.
IDH: Do you feel like biotech is taking off here in Connecticut?
TJ: The commitment Connecticut has made to support the TIP incubator and provide the CBIF funding—I really think that those are two very significant things because they help get entrepreneurs into an ecosystem where they can all benefit from each other. And it gives entrepreneurs seed capital to get results so they can go out to the next round of investors and then get going.
I’m incredibly grateful for the TIP, Connecticut Innovations, and the CBIF funding. It’s been critical for our company and for many of the other startups to get going.
IDH: Looking to the future, where do you want the startup to be one year from now?
TJ: At this time next year I would hope our products are on the market and we have customers who are really avid, enthusiastic followers of our product because it’s enabled them to do really great science. That’s what I would like.
I also hope investors have appreciated that so we have sufficient financial resources to continue to grow the company and diversify the product base. Because when you look at the microbiome, it’s like this great big blue sky kind of thing where there is so much opportunity. We just need the financial resources to choose the one or two things we want to pursue next.