BASF Advanced Research Initiative at Harvard, co-director of the Harvard Kavli Institute for BioNano Science & Technology, and director of the Harvard Materials Research Science & Engineering Center. NAS, NAE, American academy arts and sciences
1. Good evening Dr. Weitz – thanks for doing this. I hope you’re enjoying our meeting so far, and welcome back to Vancouver. For the purpose of this blog, we’re trying to highlight some of the groundbreaking research in genomics, and a little bit more about your entrepreneurial background.
Happy to do this. Let’s begin!
2. After obtaining your PhD in Physics from Harvard, you first began your career at Exxon – studying complex fluids and interfaces. You held this post for 18 years, and then subsequently transitioned back into academia. Many do the reverse, but evidently you spun out several companies. What was your decision to return to academia, and to begin your career at Exxon?
Back in my days, research was centered in a completely different era. There was a company called Bell labs – which had significant funding for basic science and an entire R&D department. Many companies mimicked this, including Exxon. It was the golden era of fundamental research in corporate America, and when I first started out, you could work on anything. However, within 5-7 years, the research became more streamlined, and focused to the company interests. Over the remainder of my time, I realized I needed to return to academia, so came U Penn, and eventually my post at Harvard.
3. Having this prior industry experience – did that research give you an entrepreneurial mindset, especially when you started Raindance technologies in 2002?
Funny enough, actually no. I never once filed a patent, because I knew it would be tied up by lawyers, and I’d never publish. However what it taught me was to think outside of discipline, try different techniques, how to talk to companies, and get the support needed from large companies, and SME’s. The toughest part was finding the sweet spot – research that was I genuinely interested in, and incorporating it in a way to solve the company’s problem. That’s the hard part.
My favourite type of industrial work involves really, really good science, which is important scientifically, in the highest profile journal publications. So much that, the research itself will influence and change the way a company does things.
Now at Harvard, you really can’t avoid the infectious entrepreneurial vibe in Boston-Cambridge. In fact, if starting a company leads to research impact, for the longevity of your academic career, I’d recommend it. Do the work that leads to the biggest impact, and in Boston and San Francisco, you’re likely to do sometimes by commercialize your idea.
4. I agree, it’s a strong and robust entrepreneurial environment in Boston. Alluding to your background and basic science research, you studied soft condensed matter and material sciences. At what point did you transition into microfluidics, and, realized an application for biotechnology / life sciences?
Initially, I was heavily involved with material sciences. One of the areas I studied were emulsions. We eventually incorporated microfluidics into our research, to create “droplets as vesicles”.
5. Would you say this was the first iterations / onset of your research?
Yeah, for about 2 years, we didn’t have the faintest idea how this study of vesicles would ever be important. However, I met with a colleague, who realized the potential of apply this into biotech. We read papers, approached thought leaders, and before long we were ahead of everybody in the microfluidics world. In terms of biotech innovation, we were ahead of the curve, but still didn’t really under the true potential. I’m not a biologist!
6. Would you have done anything different during this time, during the development of your technology?
Honestly, the biggest limitations were our lack of biological knowledge. If we were ask “what if?” if I had known earlier, and understand biology at a higher level, we probably would’ve developed the technology a lot sooner, and make less mistakes along the way.
7. But it’s the journey isn’t it? The confluence of events?
Yes, exactly. It’s how I learned how to do it, and where I am today, and I’m proud of that.
8. Now back to our original theme – genomics. You founded multiple microfluidic companies over the course of your career – 1Cell Bio, HiFi Bio, GnuBio, Raindance technologies, etc. Through all those different companies, you worked with different co-founders, investors, collaborators – from your initial start up – how did each company evolve? What differed, in terms of each version and sequencing company? Is it based on the times? What the demand was at the time?
Like I said before – one of the bottlenecks was the lack of my biology knowledge. However, if you focus on sequencing, we started our first company, Raindance in 2003, and we asked ourselves – let’s focus on single cell work.
9. Why single cell analysis?
Our partner insisted on this aspect of sequencing – no one else was doing it, so might as well give it a shot. It’s a really easy way to do sequencing, and we were convinced that it would be better than anything else.
The person that was funded 454, founded Raindance. He forbid sequencing, and from my opinion, was detrimental to the company development. Eventually, our technology was considered, but by the time we were delayed by 2-3 years of development, 5 years later we were so far behind Solexa and Illumina and could never catch up.
10. From brief conversation yesterday, you said you did have promising outlook for GnuBio, a sequencing company that was recently bought out by Bio-Rad. Could you explain about this –
Sure, I really like the people there. At the moment, I think that there’s a really good potential for entry into the clinical market. A smaller lab doesn’t need the full scale abilities of an Illumina MiSeq, and GnuBio has developed a technology that could really penetrate, and offer the needs of sequencing in a clinical setting. I think that niche is a good area that will grow in the next 10 years.
11. Before our retreat, you flew in from Suzhou, China. As you mentioned, you’re setting up a few companies in China. As you’ve done in the past, why China? Why in 2017 for this?
I think the next generation of ground breaking technologies will come from China. Solid innovation and attainment of IP will remain in the US. I’ll give you a bit of history –
A fellow in my group, Jing Chen, worked with CapitalBio in China, and was funded by the Chinese government. Right around the glory days of gene chips, we were working with Affymetrix’s ideas, and bringing in these “Western Ideas” allowed for scalability in the country. After the IP expired in 5 years, it was built quickly, bigger and faster.
Back then, I considered working in China and starting a company, but was hesitant based on the volatility. That didn’t seem right, but now, I realized, why not? We could leverage the resources and the reputation we had, and that’s why now we’re pursuing new ventures in Suzhou.
I agreed, and started a lab at Peking University, whilst on Sabbatical, and did some really interesting science with some outstanding post-docs. Our goal was to develop novel technologies that met the specific needs of the Chinese markets, however, they aren’t currently suitable for the USA markets. Though they may not be at the same stage of development as the USA, if we can spur a simple idea, that’s some takeaways we can bring back to the USA.
12. Last question – as a Canadian living in Boston, here’s a common question you’ve probably encountered. Regarding the job market in the United States, your experiences at Harvard, there’s always a discourse regarding “Brain Drain” – where Canadians tend to work in the States after graduating. With the recent immigration policies shifted on both sides of the border, do you think there could be a shift?
Great question. Canada has a robust university system that produces talented and skilled workers, however, the retention of these workers has always been difficult. In physics, roughly 50% of Canadians are working in America; not necessarily a sense of “Brain Drain”, but simply a sense of scale – there are more job opportunities that they can fill in with their skillset. It’s the amount of jobs in proportion. In fact, when I graduated, I wanted to work back in Canada, actually here in Vancouver, but the economy and scale of the market is much, much larger in the United States during that time.
There’s a lot of really, really good research happening in Canada. However, the ability to commercialize and scale it to market isn’t normally achieved – I think more to do with the mindset of Canadians. In the United States, there is far more of an entrepreneurial mindset, where they are continually striving to make a product better, willing to take greater risks, and also, willing to fail. With the stability of Canada, and its high quality of life and society, far less are looking to make that plunge. When you have a mindset of entrepreneurship in the United States, it is not just Canadians, but the entire world of talent who are looking at making a difference with regards to innovation.
I consider myself a proud Canadian, but I’ve also benefited immensely by working in the United States. I appreciate both countries and the opportunities they’ve given me. It’s the best of both worlds!
Thank you, Dr. Weitz, and I hope you enjoy the rest of our meeting!
Keywords: microfluidics, physics, soft condensed matter, mesoscopic structure, drop-based microfluidics, biophysics, biotech, interface science, surface science, materials science, rheology, fluid mechanics, colloid chemistry