RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Research Triangle-based biological data analysis company founded by Duke University researchers expects to launch one spinout in about a month and another in a year to commercialize specific products it is developing.
Mimetics, founded in 2015, uses advanced computational analysis to find hidden patterns in biological data shows how gene expression of living organisms changes over time. Co-founder and CEO David Reed said in an interview with the Biotech Center, that the company started after he had a conversation with two fellow Duke faculty members and co-founders John Harer, now the firm’s lead mathematician, and Steven Haase, lead biologist.
They had worked on sophisticated math tools to analyze biological data with support from government agencies including a $14.5 million Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project.
In particular, Reed said, the researchers had “Developed powerful tools to analyze gene expression data, how genes turn on and off. People often think of genes as somehow always been there, but in fact, sometimes they are active and sometimes they are not.”
One of the Holy Grails of molecular biology
Learning how the process of activating and suppressing genes is controlled is “One of the Holy Grails of contemporary molecular biology,” Reed said. “It is not simply the size of the data sets, but their complexity that makes analysis difficult. The data does not represent static information. The genome doesn’t change over time, but genes are always turning on and off in complicated patterns,” he explained.
“We want to know what controls the patterns where one set of genes is activated at one time and not at another.”
Research has shown, for instance, that as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day of exercise can activate set of beneficial genetic responses. “Some control system in your body responds to a signal, say a new exercise pattern, then does something that changes the expression of the genes,” said Reed.
Launching its first spinout
Another example – one that is behind the launch of Mimetics first spinout, Precision Fermentation – affects the beer and wine brewing industries. “When yeast goes into a fermentation tank it senses a rich food environment, and the cells grow and proliferate. Then, later on, they sense they no longer have that much nutrition and their behavior changes and they start producing significant quantities of alcohol.”
Up to now, brewers have not had a way to see what is happening in the yeast as these changes in yeast cells driving the fermentation takes place.
If you find out what controls these changes in yeast behavior, you can help the brewer do a better job of making beer. By continuous sampling and analysis of the tank, the Precision Fermentation monitoring system develops models of the ways in which the yeast respond to and then modify their environment, which are all due to the dynamics of the gene expression.
This allows brewers to use their yeast more efficiently to control the fermentation processes more closely and to get accurate, real-time information about what is going on in the fermentation tank.
The same technology has applications in other food and beverage categories Precision Fermentation’s monitoring system will provided information on what’s going on in the brewing tanks via a web interface they can access anywhere. “Brewing is a huge global market and the company has excellent prospects,” Reed said.
Precision Fermentation is working closely with a potential investor and hopes to close a deal shortly, Reed said. When the new company launches, it will be hiring in a range of scientific, data analysis, and sales and marketing positions.
Other versions of Mimetics technology can be applied to fermentations used to produce pharmaceuticals and biological crop protection products.
Reed said Mimetics itself raised about $1 million. “From our own money, an angel investor, National Science Foundation grants, service contracts with clients, and loans from the Biotech Center. The Center has been very helpful to us,” he added.
A second potential spinout Mimetics is focusing on will commercialize new anti-fungal and fungicidal agents based on its research on fungal cell cycles.
Currently, fungal infections are very difficult to treat and “Fungi Are everywhere,” Reed said. “They are an especially dangerous threat to young, elderly, and immune-compromised patients.” Mimetics hopes to have this company ready for investment in the coming year.
“The company sees many other potential applications for the platform technology and will be primarily an R&D operation spinning out additional startups,” Reed said. It will also continue work as a service provider to certain clients because “That’s how we get to know what their problems are.”
In fact, that’s how Precision Fermentation evolved, from Mimetics work with brewers. “We got to know what their problems were; with that information we were able to develop great products.”
“Biologists are great at developing new ways to get data,” he said. “It’s been a priority. So much work goes into to it. On the other hand, historically, less effort has gone into developing tools for analyzing the data. Data is not information. You have to analyze the data to get information and for that, you need the right tools. At Mimetics, we hope to fill some of that need.”
(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center