More Funding

After months of reminding the bureaucracy at the NIH that they promised us the remainder of our SBIR Phase I grant funding many months ago, we can now breathe a collective sigh of relief; the paperwork is complete and the second dose of funding has been infused into our HIV grant. This was important news for us, as we had been planning on that money to keep the science flowing as we prepare for the anti-cancer project Phase II funding. Our original Phase I grant, which began in June of 2010, is complete. We are officially in the gap between Phase I and Phase II for our anti-cancer therapeutics research. We are hoping to hear soon on Phase I funding for another project, but all we can do is cross our fingers in hopes that the NIH reviewers agree with our novel approach to screening compounds. In the meantime, according to Dr. Ruffner, we are moving steadily in the direction of interesting results and encouraging data. Methods and protocols are becoming more routine as we nail down the art behind our science.  New ideas continue to incrementally improve our chances of success.  Every one of our employees adds to the equation, and we appreciate each of our team members!  The team generated some great results this week, including a screening test that clearly showed the difference between duds and promising peptides.  Preliminary results are always helpful when we approach grant application due dates!

Speaking of great science, I neglected to mention in the last blog post that we celebrated the publication of our first scientific journal article in late May. The article is “Accessing the Hidden Majority of Marine Natural Products Through Metagenomics,” Donia MS, Ruffner DE, Cao S, Schmidt EW, ChemBioChem Volume 12, Issue 8, pp 1230-1236, May 16, 2011. We Symbionites are pleased to have contributed to this important line of research, and I’d like to congratulate Duane Ruffner for his successful adventure into the world of blue green algae and natural product research. And, of course, many thanks to our Symbion co-founder, Eric Schmidt, for allowing Symbion to contribute to his ARRA stimulus package grant through a subcontract with the University of Utah.

Another highlight for Symbion was that I (representing Symbion) was invited to attend a small gathering of Utah small businesses with Esther Vassar, the Small Business Administration Ombudsman. This event, referred to as the White House Business Council “Winning the Future Roundtable” was an intimate discussion of how the Obama Administration can help us succeed. Attendees brought lists of issues that should be addressed by the Obama Administration. The most common issues included health care costs, the burden of paperwork with US government grants/contracts and FDA regulations, and the difficulty of obtaining SBA loans.  A few interesting tidbits that I jotted down included:

  • Healthcare costs rose between 10 – 15% for small businesses last year and will again in 2011.
  • 10% of the average time of small businesses in Utah is spent dealing with, recording, filing, submitted and tracking paperwork as a result of government regulations.  Note that those present were all companies that were tied to the US Federal Government in one way or another.
  • Small businesses across the US are getting smaller – as a result of productivity per employee rising and because many companies now prefer to contract with service providers rather than hire personnel (as a direct result of out of control healthcare costs).
  • Small businesses are working in partnerships with other small businesses to create consortiums of companies to provide products and services.  So, for example, a contractor will form a consortium of companies to create an organization capable of conducting large scale government contract projects. This is becoming the norm, and those present felt this trend would continue to grow.  This has been Symbion’s approach, with grants having our company as the primary and other companies listed as the subs.

Miss Vassar was very gracious and I believe that everyone in the room left with the understanding that she and her staff are available for providing assistance when needed.  If we had specific suggestions for her (rather than complaints), she would willingly pass the information along to those who can make the change.

This past month has also included pricing a variety of benefit packages for our employees.  We are fortunate in that we can budget those costs right into the grants, and we tried to leave some wiggle room in those budgets for additional cost increases.  It was discouraging to affirm that the cost of healthcare for small companies is truly out of control.  As a group, we have no ability to pool with large groups of healthy people, and therefore the costs are at a maximum.  And the really unfortunate part is that we have to decide quickly, or we will need to refill out all the forms and re-apply for insurance; the costs are rising so quickly that the quotes are only good for a short period of time.  Our decision will be based on the likelihood of future funding, of course.  Just one more strain for our young startup.

Well, wish us luck this coming month – we will be hearing soon regarding reviews, scores and summary statements for our recent proposals.  If we can just hang in there for a few more grants, then we can move to the next step in our evolution; partnership arrangements with established companies.  Hopefully the timing will cooperate with our plans and Symbion will continue to thrive well into the future.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

In the true spirit of the entrepreneur, we have forged ahead over the past couple of months in spite of all the hurdles thrown our way.  Although we completed our stimulus package subaward through the University of Utah back in December, we had paperwork to finalize during the first three months of 2011.  During the first quarter 2011, all documentation was completed to the satisfaction of the state and governmental overseers.  We can now focus on our current grants, multiple grant applications, and our future R&D projects.  The company passed multiple audits over the past quarter, with complements from the reviewers (sweet!). Therefore, taxes were filed on time, the University of Utah gave us their blessing, the Worker’s Compensation Representative was satisfied, and the Board of Directors reviewed and accepted the formal Annual Report for 2011.  Symbion Discovery may be a young startup, but we are doing our best to ensure a respectable rating should anyone in the future need to review our books. Anyone who has gone through the process of audit and tax preparation knows that Q1 is a high-stress time of year.  If I can offer any words of wisdom to a young company looking at how to prepare a startup company for audits and taxes, it may be best to pay a bit extra for the services of a CFO type person – someone who can offer expertise in preparing the company prior to the last quarter of the tax year. IMHO, anyway.

April was SBIR grant filing time, so we typed like mad and filed several proposals covering a variety of topics.  Some were re-writes, which included changes to proposals previously submitted to/reviewed by the NIH.  In these cases, the reviews were very encouraging, with only minor changes and additions required for re-filing.  We also added a couple of new topics and new twists to our R&D interests.  All submissions were successful — now we just wait and see what gets funded and what doesn’t.  In the meantime, we had some encouraging news regarding one of our previous grant proposals.  We are anxiously awaiting news of the funding level for the SBIR program, which will determine the payline for this year’s proposals.

As mentioned in previous posts, Symbion is a drug discovery company, but we believe that to maximize our value, we need to partner with other companies that specialize in high throughput screening for specific targeted biological activities. We are currently involved in two such partnerships, both of which are subcontractors on grants that we have submitted (and one of which was funded). We are now gearing up to conduct a joint research project with one of our partners.

Finally, with the prospect of funding for 2012, we are looking at benefits packages for our employees.  It’s quite discouraging to see the pricetags on healthcare insurance for small companies.  We had hoped Utah’s health exchange would provide a pool of workers to dilute the risks. In fact, Utah’s health exchange is more expensive than traditional packages since it does NOT pool workers and only the unhealthiest of workers are looking for healthcare benefits — this drives up the costs for everyone.  Without getting into the politics of healthcare, I just want to say that our system is definitely broken.  Perhaps by the next blogpost, I can provide more insight to the question of whether a small company can afford employee benefits.  In the meantime, we will continue to do our best to prepare for a successful growing company.

The Path to Discovery

Things are humming along at Symbion.  We just submitted a handful of SBIR proposals and we are crossing our fingers in anticipation of: 1) the US Government avoiding a shut-down and re-funding the SBIR program; and, 2) our proposals making it through the NIH review and funding process.  We are getting some positive feedback on previous submissions, which keeps our hopes up for a continuous flow of grants. In the meantime, our two current projects allow us to tweek Symbion’s novel ideas and explore new ways to achieve our research goals.

Management of this young company is a daily challenge, but so far Symbion has kept up with each new bump in the road.  Having two experienced managers on the team helps.

Our CEO, Duane Ruffner, with his deep understanding of the science, uses his expertise to guide the day-to-day bench activities. This is not his first rodeo – in fact, his background includes starting another biotech fledgling — and steering the research unit of his previous company, Salus Therapeutics (which was later sold to Genta).  Of course, the role of the scientist isn’t just about the experiments, it’s often more about translating complex information and networking between the scientists so that they can work as a team.  His ability to conceptualize new ideas, and to elucidate various reasons for experimental outcomes helps keep the company on the path towards discovery.  In addition, he can write a compelling proposal, and his track record shows it.  Duane has extensive experience in molecular and cellular biology, with many publications and a number of issued patents in the area of antisense NA and ribozyme research.  In my years at the University of Utah’s Technology Commercialization Office, Duane was the only University inventor with a 100% success rate in terms of patenting/licensing his ideas (OK, well one of the patents never issued because of some prior art, but the patent application was licensed before it was allowed to expire).  He was one of only a handful of inventors that actually made more money than lost it for the University. His company, Salus, hired a number of people before it was sold, thereby contributing to the economic well-being of the state of Utah.  Symbion is his second grand adventure, and hopefully this will be even grander!

As for me, I spent 10 years helping to grow a startup biotech company into a thriving business (BSI, which went IPO as SurModics).  I wrote and won (and helped to win) many SBIR’s over the years, and I have run research and development projects that resulted in successful products.  I also founded and I have successfully run DCG Consulting for 15 years.  While my early career pegged me as a “Solid Surface Immunochemical Engineer,”  I later focused on product design and manufacturing management, then business development and licensing based on life science-based technologies.  Most of my time is now spent evaluating inventions, making patenting decisions, assisting in business formation, and working on prototyping and product design teams.  My role at Symbion is pretty much whatever needs doing to keep the business running smoothly.  That would be everything from HR matters and negotiating contracts to editing/submitting proposals and making sure taxes get paid.  Oh, and writing the blog.  With my many years of working with small companies, there isn’t much I haven’t done. There are things I’d rather not have to do, but that’s a different matter.

We couldn’t make this work without a great team of people working in the lab, so I can’t leave out the fact that we have managed to collect some serious talent to help develop something that will make us proud.  They certainly make our jobs easier!

First Project Completed

The Symbion team has grown to 5 employees, thanks to the addition of one of our interns to the payroll.  Casey Van Wagoner was featured in a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, which you can find on the Salt Lake Tribune website.  One of the conditions of being a client at the BioInnovations Gateway is that we must take student interns into the company lab and train them.  We have had two interns so far, and while one started college in the Fall, Casey decided to take a break before continuing his education.  He did a great job while he interned for us, so we have asked him to remain with us as a part time lab assistant.  We are very pleased that he accepted.

Our projects are going well, and we have now completed the first funded NIH grant.  We have two NIH SBIR projects currently in progress.  We also have a number of grant proposals working their way through the review system.  Progress in the biotech world takes time – it is amazing how many roadblocks crop up along the path towards proving (or trying to prove) a technology.   We take all the twists and turns in stride; in some ways, it is the very act of trying to overcome the headaches that helps us re-create and re-strategize towards a better alternative.

One of the beneficial surprises of the BioInnovations Gateway (the BiG) is the synergy between the companies that have chosen the incubator as a launch pad.  The labs are full, the hallways are busy and there are names on the neighboring doors.  As a group, we have met, and are continuing to meet, to share ideas and to work together as tenants in the same building.  We are very impressed with the combined level of talent, skills and expertise in the incubator.  Our “taskmasters” at the BiG keep us on track and on schedule.  They oversee our plans, assist in making sure we are managing the company up to high standards, expect us to keep our milestones up to date and up to the challenge, and they provide the hints and reminders we need to keep the facility clean and functional.

On the management side, we continue to deal with the daily stress of accounting, financial review and cash flow planning, payroll, benefits, timesheets, employee handbook rules, compliance issues, inventory, insurance, licenses, safety issues, and don’t forget those pesky contracts and agreement negotiations.  Biotech entrepreneurs work endless hours – the grant proposals alone take a total of about 40 hours to write, tweek, edit and submit for each proposal.  We work nights.  We work weekends.  We work the usual regular day hours too.  And yet, the list of to-dos never wanes.

We are a team and we are working together to steer the company towards a joint vision.  Time will tell!

Nose to the Grindstone

Well, we are now fueled by three grants from our friends at the NIH.  We sincerely hope we can do them proud!  We now have 4 employees and one student intern, all having the goal of drug discovery and turning ideas into products.  Given the latest economic stats, we are pleased to be adding jobs to the local Utah economy.

Progress is steady.  The day-to-day details seem to provide endless distractions from the science, but we do our best to keep the managerial details sequestered from the scientific team.  Personally, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for a scientist to run a lab while trying to deal with payroll, license negotiations, insurance, material transfer agreements, government regulations, endless reporting requirements, employment rules and regulations, accounting, research contracts and the million other details it takes to keep a company running.

On the science side, we have managed to confirm that our system is working based on well-characterized model peptides, so we are confident that we are on the right track. On the managerial side, the accounting and reporting seems to take most of the time, and the dozens of legal documents that must be negotiated between Symbion and third parties seem to queue up more every day.  Our lawyers are getting a workout!

We are very pleased to see more small biotech firms join the BioInnovations Gateway.  It’s clear that some of the companies can provide synergy to Symbion’s goals and we are currently toying with some exciting joint projects.  In addition, it’s great to have sympathetic ears when we run into business management roadblocks.  We entrepreneurs can learn so much from one another.

On the student side, we had two wonderful student interns join our team over the summer (recently graduated high school students).  Between them, they managed to generate some basic scientific data which can be used to help us receive more funding in the months to come.  While one of the students has chosen to return to school full time, the other has agreed to stay on part time. It’s a pleasure for us to help train scientists in a business start up setting; let’s face it, these are the people who will be fueling the economy of the future.  If we can get them excited about entrepreneurship, then we will all be better off in the years to come.

Speaking of the future, we continue to write grants with our eye on 9 – 12 months ahead.  We know that by the time we receive funding, our technology will have developed further, so we must always be thinking about our milestones and scientific progress one year out.  It is not easy, but we talk amongst ourselves and make decisions that will keep us on the path towards commercialization.  There have been a number of rejected ideas, and there are some that are not unanimous.  However, based on our funding rate, our decision-making process seems to be working.

Two More Grants!

It is a rare day when I can come up for air, and truthfully, I have a pile of deadlines on my desk, but I wanted to take a minute to let you know that we have been awarded two more NIH grants. The first is an SBIR ARRA grant, a result of Obama’s stimulus package. We started work on that one some time ago, but we ran into problems with our paperwork at the Federal offices. It was your basic nightmare of forms, forms and more forms, and some had to be originals – but even overnighted and signed for, the documents seemed to get lost in the system. It was quite a challenge to finally get our grant liason to shake down everyone’s desk in order to find the needle in the haystack (as he said, it may be overnighted to the building, but it can take a week or more to get up to the 11th floor!). At any rate, the ducks are now all in a row, so we are hard at work on that project. The third grant is your basic SBIR, and we are lined up and ready for that to begin very soon.

As a result of the two additional grants, we had to move into a bigger space, so I have been back at the negotiating table for a new lab. It took quite a bit of time to move into the new lab (at the same facility), and we lucked into finding some very nice used equipment to fill in the added space.

Also as a result of the new grants, we have been quite busy with the human resource arm of the company. Writing/posting job descriptions, learning all the ropes regarding compliance with the State and Federal regulation, and making sure we have a research misconduct policy firmly in place requires quite a time commitment!

The research is going well, and we continue to be encouraged by the results the lab is generating. Of course, this is early stage research, so we are a long ways from having a product ready to sell. With biotech, we have to be contented by slow progress towards our development goals. Patience is an absolute requirement when it comes to drug discovery.

We have been very encouraged about two young scientists who have joined our lab for the summer. These high-school students are part of the Granite School District technology training program at the BioInnovations Gateway. During their internship, they will help us establish our system using well-characterized model proteins. Symbion gets to use the data as a baseline for future research while the students get to learn how to design and conduct genetics experiments in a real company. It’s a win-win for everyone. Don’t you wish your high school had a program like that when you were a kid??

All in all, the company is doing well, but not without a great deal of effort.  The life of an entrepreneur is a lesson in hitting your head against a wall.   The number of details is overwhelming, with new emergencies popping up every day.   Some emergencies are small, while others will make you cringe.  All require attention.  I just hope that someday the work will prove worthwhile for those of us that are putting every last ounce of energy into making this work.

Up and Running

It’s been a crazy ride over the past several months while we set up the lab and get the paperwork completed. No one said it would be easy! We have been so busy, I haven’t had a chance to jot down even a few notes. Since my intent was to help other entrepreneurs learn about how to start a biotech company, I had hoped to give a play-by-play script on the mechanics of setting up a company. Unfortunately, it takes so much time and effort to set up a company, I didn’t have time to blog about it!

In looking back over the past several months, I can tell you that there are many seemingly endless hurdles that must be leaped to get a company up and running. One of the toughest challenges is figuring out how to start the process without having a formal address. It’s a Catch-22, since in order to get into a lab, we had to have a business license and insurance, but we couldn’t get the license and insurance without the lab. How can you insure equipment that doesn’t exist?  Yet, anyway.  I am happy to report that the BioInnovations Gateway (BiG) in South Salt Lake was very helpful in this process. Once we made it past the first evaluation process, the BiG permitted us to use their address while we applied for a license and obtained the needed insurance. The license woulda/coulda been a snap, but the mail delivery person thought that the address was a mistake and “returned to sender” before delivering said license. Not good. Then there was the insurance! Getting insurance on a biotech lab is a lesson in frustration. You think you’ve answered all their questions, but NO! Every time I thought we had a binder ready, they would send yet one more required form. In the end, we were able to get the needed insurance in time to start moving in, thank heavens.  I also spent time on the phone with South Salt Lake zoning and the fire chief to make sure that our use of chemicals was acceptable.  There were no objections to our plans.

We Symbion founders passed the security background check, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.  The security check at BiG is an important process since the building is filled with swarming packs of minors and they need to be protected from any potentially dangerous people.  Not only do questionable adults need to be sequestered from kids, but kids also need to be sequestered from the private labs, so security cameras, locks and police guard everything from the parking lots to the various classrooms and labs within the buildings.

We quickly realized that we needed to change banks and set up payroll, so we had to do some shopping around for a bank that caters to small companies. We decided that Wells Fargo had the staff with the stuff – and they were able to walk us through the process without too many glitches (many thanks to Ben Jones and Andrew Sawyer at Wells Fargo). We had a tough time finding Worker’s Comp insurance since we are a laboratory – biotech seems to have a black cloud over it as far as insurance companies are concerned. We still need to work out a benefits program; we will be adding another employee soon. While benefits seem like something to be set on the back burner to a start up company with no income, they are not trivial to a prospective employee.

We had to make sure our formal company documents were set up properly – and we decided that we needed to set them up as if we are going to be bought by a big pharma someday (it’s OK to dream). We hired a reputable law firm and worked with an attorney who specializes in M&A (Todd Reece of Ballard Spahr). There were only a few changes needed, but they were important details. All the formal documents are completed and filed with the required government entities.

It took many hours and many people to negotiate and complete the formal paperwork for the BiG space. We are the first occupant for the incubator, so the initial draft document needed significant tweeking. In the end, all parties felt that it was a win-win, so we are truly honored to be a part of the BiG. Many thanks go to our attorney, Todd Reece and to Dr. Suzanne Winters, the Director of the BiG. I would also like to thank Dr. Tammy Goetz, science advisor to the Governor of Utah, for turning this dream into a reality. Tammy provided the original seed of a vision and the grant writing proficiency to transform the BiG from a dream into a funded possibility, while Suzanne (as a USTAR employee) took it from the blueprint to the completed labs, and now as Director of BiG, she can manage it into a functioning teaching, training, entrepreneurial adventure.

The BiG is a non-profit that is separate but associated with the Granite School District. The BiG is a biotech training center for high school and college students. The idea is for Symbion, as a client, to help train students and give them real world experience. We are thrilled to be involved in creating future scientists. Even if Symbion is a complete and total bomb, we will at the very least provide jobs and training for our scientific community.

We completed our research subcontract with the University of Utah a couple of months ago, and we have been purchasing the needed supplies and equipment ever since. Next on the agenda is creating a fully functional accounting system which will be in compliance with the government grant requirements. The contract has been signed and the computer and software is up and running, so we are ready to start entering data and setting up our system.

On the science side, we have had to re-design the vectors we planned to use since the University lab did not have the rights to pass their vectors on to Symbion. Although this caused a delay in the experiments, we believe that our new designs may provide some advantages over the original methods. As always in science and engineering, tweeking for process improvements is integral to creating new ideas.

Next on the agenda is working with the USTAR team (Utah’s science technology and research initiative) to more clearly develop our business plan. Having another pair of eyes and some advice and input from seasoned entrepreneurs will also help us more clearly define our vision going forward.  We also need to start working with students both as guest speakers/teachers in the classrooms and as instructors for training projects.

We now have a working lab.  Much of the equipment and supplies have arrived and we are now starting experiments not only in our lab, but also in the common areas of the facility.  Lab safety rules are fairly well worked out and in place, documentation processes are being organized and accounting systems are being set up.  Now we just wait for the data and, hopefully (cross your fingers), more funding to come our way.

Well, if President Obama wants to highlight entrepreneurs who have created new companies, new jobs, AND educational opportunities for America’s future scientists, he is welcome to come and visit this ARRA recipient!

Dotting I’s Crossing T’s

Now we get into the details of turning a virtual company into a real one. We have submitted our application to the incubator where we intend to set up a laboratory. We are working on the subcontract with the University of Utah for the grant funding. We are working with the University of Utah on the agreement to use their technology. We are going over our business documents with the attorneys to make sure all the ownership issues and employee and consulting contracts are correct. We have to set up payroll and deal with all the HR issues associated with having employees. Then there are the licenses and permits we need to have the business at the new location, and to use the chemicals that we will be using. Our business plan is mostly intact, but still needs some refinement. We have to obtain insurance (how much? how expensive?).  And, on top of this, we are in the process of preparing more research proposals. For our team of three founders, all of this requires a lot of dedication!  We all hope it will pay off in the end, and we certainly hope that our dream of finding anti-infective drugs will: 1) create jobs, 2) help train budding scientists, 3) save lives/improve the quality of care for patients, and 4) generate revenue for the shareholders. It looks like goals one and two are about to happen. Three and Four may take a few years, but we have a team of experienced and patient entrepreneurs. Let’s get the ball rolling!

Symbion Gets Funding

It’s about time! We got word on Friday, Oct 2, that we were awarded a subcontract through the University of Utah for just over a year of funding. That contract started on Sept 30, so we are already late in getting the project started.  It’s a beginning! The company is now in negotiations with all the various players to establish a lab and get the ball rolling. Not an easy task, but it’s a burden worth bearing. Now for the attorney’s take on all the paperwork, no doubt he’ll have a few changes to make before the deal is done. That should take a bit of time, but we are hoping to have all our ducks in a row – or bacterial clones in this case – by the end of the month.

In the meantime, we have two upcoming deadlines for more proposals.  At least one will be designed and prepared with a partner organization.  Our goal is to find “end users” – or people who know and understand the clinical problems with current antibiotics.  We need to set high standards for the products we intend to develop!

Proposals, proposals everywhere and not a drop to drink…

It’s been a while, so I think it’s time to update everyone on the latest happenings of Symbion.  We did finally get all four grant proposals all the way through the NIH process and into the review committees. That is to say, along with 25,000 other proposals that managed to actually get through the governmental gatekeepers, and the NIH Commons.  No doubt countless others never made it past the first governmental hurdle, and others got trapped in the NIH’s electronic “post office”.  Unfortunately, since only 200 proposals will be funded, they quickly slashed most of the proposals, including ours.  We may have had a better chance winning the lottery.  Well, we aren’t deterred!  Duane has recently filed one more submission, and is planning on several more over the next few weeks.

Our primary interest is in finding antimicrobials – particularly cyanobactins that act as antibiotics on MRSAs or other health-care associated infections, or tuberculosis, or as anti-virals to combat HIV or flu viruses, or anti-fungals to treat yeast infections.   Cyanobactins are also known to have chemotherapeutic activity, and this is another area of interest for Symbion Discovery.  The key is to harness the cyanobactin’s toxic characteristics and use them to selectively kill bacteria or virus or fungus or cancer cells.

We are currently lining up joint research projects with labs having skill sets that compliment our own.  Symbion is a gene jockey company, but our goal is to use evolutionary optimization to guide the genes to do what we need them to do; we plan to generate millions of clones with small genetic changes and use environmental pressure to select the clones that work for us.  The key is to understand the chemical pathways the cells use to make these natural antibiotics.

So, what are cyanobactins, you ask?  They are small cyclic peptides produced by cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria is blue green algae.  There are many species of blue green algae, including those in freshwater and those from marine sources.    If you go into the health food stores, you’ll find bottled blue green algae in tablet form.  The blue green algae at the store has been shown to increase T cell activity, so it boosts the immune system.   Well, it worked for me when I had sinus infections, so I’ll swear by it.  That blue green algae (species name is Spirulina) is from a freshwater lakes.   The cyanobacteria that Symbion Discovery studies is a marine species, Prochloron didemni, which is a symbiont of Lissoclinum patella (an ascidian, otherwise known as a sea squirt).  Instead of boosting the immune system, these bacteria make peptides called cyanobactins that can selectively kill other bacteria.  Cyanobactins were originally found in the sea squirt, but further analysis showed that it is produced by the Prochloron didemni living inside the seasquirt.  Cyanobactins are the class of cyclic peptides, and the different basic peptides have a variety of activities.   These naturally occurring peptides have anti-cancer and antibiotic activity.  Eric Schmidt, one of our founders, discovered seven gene clusters for the patellamides in 2005, and found that there are hypervariable regions that are responsible for naturally creating minor changes in peptides.  Those minor changes can have important consequences – and if the resulting peptide kills an invading species, then so much the better for the species making that peptide.  These peptides can be extracted from the seasquirt or straight from Prochloron didemni, or the genes can be incorporated into E. coli or into yeast and the peptides can be produced in large quantities.  Symbion’s scientists will grow up clones that express the many possible genetic variations, and by using environmental pressures to selectively evolve the genes expressing qualities we want, we can develop new bioactive peptides with therapeutic uses.

All of this needs research funding, of course, and so we are back at our desks preparing more grant proposals.  It’s all a matter of timing, and someday our hard work will pay off.  Someday, you might even be the one who needs to be treated for a serious infection, and our hard work will save your life.  That’s our hope.  That’s our dream.

You can learn more about Eric’s research by visiting his webpage at the University of Utah.