The last two years have marked the biotechnology industry with some of the biggest advancements the field has ever seen. From big to small, from Pfizer to 23andme, the bulk of ventures focused on novel commercial applications of biotech have greatly proliferated thanks, in part, to the advent of Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence.
DxTerity, one such company, has seen immense growth within the last two years. Its platform, which allows for at-home genomic monitoring, a way to understand your autoimmune environment from RNA, has revolutionized patient care for those suffering from immune mediate diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Arthritis, and even cancer. Their service, which offers an at-home test and seal kit, which can easily be mailed off to the necessary laboratories, renders constant, precise genomic monitoring possible without expensive trip to the hospital, and available to all those confined to domestic walls.
The immensely commended mission of the company was conceptualized by its founder and CEO, Robert Terbrueggen. Before founding DxTerity, Robert engaged in multiple research projects and innovative activities, receiving as many as 22 U.S. patents. In an attempt to better understand the challenges, inspirations, and underlying processes that precede such an innovative breakthrough, we sat down for an interview with DxTerity’s founder himself, who was kind enough to take the time to answer our questions.
Who are your biggest inspirations in the respective fields of Business and Science?
“Bill Gates – On one hand he co-founded a very successful company, but more importantly, he went on to start the Gates Foundation which is having a real impact on the lives of people throughout the world.”
Of all your impressive professional experiences, which would you say exposed you to the most impressive degree of innovation?
“I went to CalTech for graduate school and it was my first real exposure to cutting-edge science. Since then, I played a key part in establishing and growing several genomic start-ups, including Clinical Micro Sensors (CMS), where we developed the eSensor platform. Post-acquistion of CMS by Motorola, I oversaw advanced development at Motorola Life Sciences and loved learning about the microelectronics industry. Then the internet stock market bubble burst in 2001, and I decided it was a good time to travel the world before starting DxTerity.
For me, I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of genomics and precision medicine than the present moment. These fields have gained so much momentum and public and academic interest since I began working in the field. This has spurred innovation, collaboration, and research. There’s never been a more exciting time for DxTerity, and I get the greatest satisifaction from seeing something that I was a part of developing being used everyday.”
Which of your 22(!) US patents are you most emotionally attached to?
“I am most attached to US patent 9,976,177 that just issued on Chemical Ligation dependent Probe Amplifcation (CLPA). This patent is foundational to DxTerity’s ability to perform gene expression monitoring from a self-collected patient blood sample. This particular patent also holds extra significance for me because , I invented the technology while I was the only employee of DxTerity, funding the company with my own money. It’s a reminder to me of how far I—and DxTerity—have come—and what we have to look forward to in the future.”
How important do you consider a Ph.D. within the the biotechnology industry? How important to the fostering of innovative ideas do you repute the academic side of innovation?
“I am a huge believer in higher education, and PhD programs should be about teaching people how to think for themselves and learn how to self-educate as needed in the future. I think any industry, including the biotechnology industry, does a much better job of developing new innovations and technologies because it has the advantage of already trained PhDs and non-PhDs. I think academics are judged by the wrong metrics (publications and grant money) as opposed to quality of graduates. In many cases getting a PhD doesn’t mean you are smart, just diligent.”
Having had the opportunity to read some of yours studies, it seems that many technology startups orient themselves away from the experimental academics side, and rather provide their innovative ideas with little else but the now famous “white papers”. What do you consider the possible benefits and dangers of taking an approach that is idealistic rather than concrete?
“The reality is that most companies do not have an incentive to provide too much detail on the “how” behind their technology because it just makes it easier for another company to copy them. We write patents instead when something is a game-changer, or we give talks at a conference. I am not a big supporter of the peer-reviewed publication process for a commercial company because it is too slow, time consuming, and has limited commercial value. Often times, the employees writing the paper are spending their time footnoting and complying with a journal’s format requirements instead of working on the next invention or—in our case—diagnostic test. White papers are the industry’s compromise. We chose to publish our 2015 paper in ther Journal of Molecular Diagnostics because it was a significant leep forward in the diagnostic space and the patents had already been filed (and now issued).”
What was your biggest takeaway from your experience overseeing the development of the e-Sensor, one of the biggest innovations in the field to date?
“My biggest takeaway from developing the eSensor was: Don’t grow your company too fast, and avoid venture capital if possible so you can wait a little longer to complete development of the technology, as opposed to rushing it to market. Most technology start-ups are driven to grow too fast and sometimes are forced to commercialize a sub-optimal product as opposed to spending more time in development. Layer in FDA and Regulatory and it becomes difficult to go back and commercialize the product you should have originally.”
What was the biggest source of inspiration, be it an experience, an individual or a product, that led you to the invention of Dxterity’s DxDirect Technology?
“My experience at CMS and Motorola taught me a lot. I have always been a believer in “Genomics in Everyday Care”, such that genomic information could be available to patients and doctors for a similar price to other clinical testing. The eSensor platform was meant to enable routine, rapid genomic detection from a handheld device (a.k.a. cell phone) during a standard office visit. We were unable to acheive this due to insufficient sensitivity, and this meant we needed to use traditional sample prep and PCR amplification. My experience with the eSensor platform made me reconsider the problem, and instead focus on allowing testing from self-collected blood samples that can be shipped from home and available at the time of the doctor’s visit. Our DxDirectTM technology enables ambient shipping of samples and testing on existing technology platforms, leading to readily available, low-cost, genomic testing. We achieved the same vision but with a different path.”
What do you repute the biggest challenge that DxTerity has faced, on the consumer side?
“Regulatory/FDA clearance. Our fingerstick collection kit requires FDA clearance before it can be used for consumer applications. 23andMe started selling its product and delivering clinical information before FDA approval, and they were shutdown for a couple of years.
How important is the patient’s understanding of the platform for DxTerity’s mission?
“The technical information is really geared towards our scientific collaborators who want to know more about our platform and why it makes sense to work with DxTerity to achieve a common mission of bringing genomics to everyday care. DxTerity has been very successful in getting multiple academic and industrial scientists to collaborate and reach consensus about what is important to test for in patients. We do try to provide study participants with scientific information about the “why” behind a test, and share with them as much information as possible without violating FDA rules with respect to non-approved diagnostic tests.”
How would you explain the difference between the DNA monitoring and RNA monitoring to an individual not educated in the subject matter?
“DNA is what might happen to a person, RNA is what is happening.”
In a world riddled with fears of big data, how would you describe DxTerity’s philosophy in handling sensitive patient data?
“Patient privacy is a major challenge and responsibility for companies, but the data is also the path to improving healthcare for an individual patient. Secure systems that protect the patient’s privacy but still allow for effective analysis are the challenge.”
If you could provide one piece of advice for young professionals seeking to enter the biotechnology field, what would that be?
“Work hard and pursue what interests you. Reward is usually proportionate to effort, and it is much easier if you are working on something that interests you.”