By Mary Welch
Running a start-up biotechnology company is a lot like playing chess down two rooks and a queen, said Mitchell Felder, president of Infectech Inc.
"You've got two doctors and a little money," he explained. "How are we going to get international recognition? You get the patents, which perhaps brings in more money. You may make a knight sacrifice and get into a stronger position to get a queen. It's a spirited adventure. Everything I've learned about running this business, I've learned from chess. It takes enormous structure and planning or the game's over."
Felder doesn't just theoretically believe in the similarities of chess and the biotechnology world. He named Susan Polgar, the women's world chess champion, to his scientific advisory board. His company veered from the norm earlier this year when it added David Sklansky, considered one of the best poker players in the world, to join scientists and professors on the board.
The nature of a biotechnology company is to take potential energy (patents) and turn it into kinetic energy (dollars), Felder said.
"In chess you take lots of disparate elements and you look at that position and get insight from it. Lots of people are looking at the same information - the same board, the same pieces. It's just like in medicine," he said. "We're dealing with bacteria, the gastrointestinal tract and AIDS patients. It's pure chess theory. You have to take all these disparate elements and come up with a unified whole."
Sklansky scored a perfect 800 in math on his SATs at the age of 12 and later dropped out of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. A professional gambler and the author of nine books on the subject, Sklansky works as a consultant to casinos.
It was Sklansky's expertise on mathematical probabilities that prompted Felder to put him on the board.
"I don't consider him a gambler," Felder said. "A gambler goes to the races and bets on a horse. The odds are against you. Sklansky doesn't even play the slot machines. He's a probability expert. Playing the stock market is gambling. I'd give him better odds than someone buying IBM, a mutual fund, or being a day trader. The odds are in his favor."
As with his chess whiz, Felder believes Sklansky has much to contribute to Infectech.
"Say you have a medical problem and you go to the doctor. There's probably a 5 percent chance that the prostate cancer will be missed. In a perfect world, it'd be 100 percent [detection]. You need to know the odds and what we do and what he does is very compatible. He makes a successful living understanding probability."
Sklansky has offered his theoretical opinions on business and concepts, Felder said.
"He's actually quite fascinated by medical epidemiology. He gives us a different slant. That's how you make a successful business," Felder said. "Let's face it. If we only had scientists and professors on our scientific board, nobody would be thinking anything about it. If you step away from the usual, the whole company benefits."
Felder, a neurologist, founded the Sharon, Pa., company along with Robert Ollar, a microbiologist. The two were eating Caribbean chicken in a New York restaurant one day when Felder, at the time a medical resident at New York Medical College, talked about a patient dying of a bacteria of which he had no knowledge. (It turned out to be Mycobacterium avium intracellulare, or MAI.)
They discussed inventing a better way of identifying and destroying bacteria, like the one killing Felder's patient.
Ollar eventually developed a generation of rapid-fire tests that can more quickly and effectively identify 34 deadly bacteria, including Pseudomonas, the second biggest cause of death in cancer patients; Nocardia, which causes pneumonia in thousands of patients; MAI, the most prevalent bacterial infection in AIDS patients; and M. tuberculosis, the cause of TB in some 15 million people in the U.S. Pseudomonas is also the most common hospital acquired bacterial infection in the world.
The Identikit is a microscopec slide technology and gene amplification method that grows a certain class of bacteria on a patented paraffin coated slide. Gene amplification methods can then "photocopy" the cell growth thousands of times. Since the identification is done quickly, the time until a diagnosis is reached is dramatically decreased.
For instance, the MAI Identikit allows for early detection of the bacteria in body fluids and stool specimens. The MAI bacteria is the direct cause of death in 25 percent of all AIDS patients in the U.S. and Europe.
"Diagnosing a disease is still a guess and you want to lower or eliminate the risk of being wrong," Felder said. "We are developing a better way of diagnosing the correct antibiotic or combination of antibiotics. Our technology will allow a person to see how an antibiotic will react with the bacteria in question, allowing lab workers to develop combinations of antibiotics to better destroy the bacteria. There's the goal of increasing the probability of getting it right. Not very far from what Sklansky does, is it? It's all probability."
Infectech entered into a worldwide license and royalty agreement for the manufacture of Identikit with Erie Scientific Inc., the world largest manufacturer and distributor of microscopic glass slides.
The company is in the process of developing tests that use the same methods as the Identikit for the rapid detection and antibiotic sensitivity testing of other bacteria such as E. Coli, Staphlococcus, Streptococcus and H. plyori. It received several patents for allowing the duplication of a patient's exact metabolic condition using an Infectech-developed diagnostic test kit, which is important when using antibiotics against ulcers or patients rapidly dying in an intensive care unit, the company said.
The 10-year-old company recently formed a subsidiary, MD-Diagnostics.com Inc., for medical diagnostics over the Internet.
The company is testing the kits in several hospitals across the country and in the Philippines and India. Each kit for each indication requires a separate 510(k) FDA filing.