As the president of Akceli Inc., a cellular systems biology company, David Chao relies on both his scientific background and business experience as an engagement manager with McKinsey & Co. to chart the company’s course.
After McKinsey, Chao co-founded GenoMEMS, a developer of microfabricated DNA sequences. GenoMEMS completed a commercialization deal for its DNA sequencing instrument with Shimadzu Corp., of Kyoto, Japan, and while Chao still has an affiliation with the company, it no longer requires his day-to-day direction.
“McKinsey is a great place to learn about business,” he said. “I look at it as my business post-doc . . . At McKinsey, I learned how to solve business problems and how to lead teams, as well as how to persuade people to my point of view.”
Akceli is based on its reverse transfection technology, exclusively licensed with worldwide rights from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The technology was discovered by Akceli co-founder David Sabatini, a fellow at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
The company plans to offer transfected cell microarrays to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to use in drug discovery.
“Our business model here is to work with a commercialization partner to make and sell these arrays,” Chao said.
The technology uses a coated microscope slide as opposed to a microwell or petri dish and adds cells to DNA rather than vice versa, as with traditional transfection, in which genes are added to a solution to discover how proteins and other molecules in the cells are affected by the newly created proteins.
“What it allows us to do is characterize the role of genes and proteins and drugs in cellular pathways and networks,” Chao said.
“Because we don’t have wells, the data quality is higher,” Chao said. “Our cells are grown in a uniform environment a very robust growing environment which leads to better results.”
Also, potential drugs can be tested against 100 or more targets simultaneously, so the technology is “massively parallel,” he said.
“Relative to the traditional technology of using microtiter plates, our technology is much cheaper and much faster,” he said, noting that it lowers the expense of the entire drug discovery process by getting better information faster.
The technology is patent-pending.
“It’s a tremendous competitive advantage to us in that we are the sole provider of this technology to researchers in drug discovery,” Chao said.
Akceli secured $6.5 million in a Series A funding in August before beginning operations in October. The company announced the financing in March. Investors were Atlas Venture, of Boston, and Apple Tree Partners, of New York. Chao expects to hire a CEO and chief scientific officer before the year’s end. He also expects the number of employees to grow from its present 15 to between 30 and 40 employees, including scientists at all levels.
The money is expected to take the company through mid-2003. However, Chao plans for Akceli to have in place partnerships with “leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to exploit the technology” by the end of the year. Currently, Akceli is involved in discussions to accomplish this goal.
The company also plans to continue the development of its technology, including making it fully automated and industrialized, expanding into knockdown arrays and a wider range of cell lines.
But Chao also plans for the company to continue its evolution in a broader sense.
“Ultimately, our goal would be to be a drug discovery company,” he said.