Biotech Startup Stories: nanoComposix

This is the next in our series of interviews with the people behind emerging life science organizations to learn what makes them successful. nanoComposix is a nanoparticle engineering company based in San Diego. Richard Baldwin, Chief Scientist of nanoComposix, sat down with LSN to tell us about how the company has leveraged the SBIR grant program and partnered with external companies to fund their R&D pipeline.

What does nanoComposix do?
We change the chemical properties of nanoparticles to create different materials properties with an emphasis on optical effects. We have a toolkit of materials including silver, gold, silica, titanium, copper oxide and platinum that we can combine in different ways. Nanoparticles can have very different properties to macro particles. These properties can be very useful to our partners and clients for a range of applications.

Who invented your technology?
We invented a lot of our technology inhouse and we hold patents for this. We have also licensed technology in from other sources when we need it to complete a project.

Do you have funding? How did you get it?
We have bootstrapped from the very beginning, over ten years ago, and still have no external investors. We raise the money needed for product development in three ways: grant funding; contract manufacturing and collaborative R&D partnerships.

We have had a series of SBIR grants funded. Many, but not all, of our projects are bio so we can apply for SBIRs from different funding sources including the NIH and the NSF. The DoD has been a significant source of funding. This means we can submit applications every couple of months.

We sell off-the-shelf standard products for as little as $50 a jar that people can order from our website. nanoComposix also does contract manufacturing for clients to offset our R&D costs. These range from small custom projects where we take an existing particle and modify it for anywhere from $2,000-3,000 through to million dollar efforts over several years.

We will do bigger collaborative R&D projects with partner organizations if we don’t have a product that fits their need. For example, we worked with Marco Biamonte from Drugs & Diagnostics for Tropical Diseases to create nanoparticles that could work in his lateral flow diagnostic tests.

Do you have any tips for people writing SBIR or STTR grant applications?
Make sure you talk to the program officer and check that you are meeting their requirements. Get somebody else to read it to make sure that it is easy to understand. Start planning and writing early.

How many people work at nanoComposix?
We have 35 people.

What do you look for in employees?
Almost everything we do requires chemistry. We want people who are good at chemistry rather than an expert in any particular area. We look for people who have worked in a lab of some sort and have had some hands-on experience, not just coursework.

Applicants have to first pass a telephone interview. We then talk to your references. The next step is a full day working interview with some lab work. People regularly fail that step. We don’t require an oral presentation for a research assistant level position.

We also have a three month probation period. We’ve been able to avoid a lot of problems by having that.

We advertise jobs on our site but are also open to people contacting us if they think they would be a good fit. For more senior positions, you need to bring something that we don’t already have.

What have been your biggest challenges at nanoComposix and how did you overcome them?
Learning how to manage people has been the biggest challenge.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the whole life sciences industry and how could we overcome them?
Education. The people coming out of undergraduate programs don’t always have the basic science skills that they need to innovate. We need more hands-on training as part of undergrad courses. It would be great if we could emulate the German system of technical schools.

What makes someone a good CEO?
Being a decent communicator, both internally and externally.

Do you have any advice for people looking to found a biotech startup?
Do the stuff that works. Don’t keep following your big idea if it doesn’t work. We are still around because we have expertise and infrastructure in one area and while we don’t pick up projects that don’t fit into that, we have been willing to take on a very wide variety of different things.

Work by the motto of ‘Fast to fail’. Work out the quickest way to test whether an idea will work or not. Do the easiest proof of concept experiment to decide whether or not a project has legs.