Duke’s Entrepreneurial Spirit
a special Duke Today series

Faculty Research Leads to Jobs and Companies

By Karl Leif Bates

More than 100 people owe their jobs to Richard Fair and Philip Benfey. Companies they helped create are developing new biomedical equipment and plant-based solutions to climate change.

The two Duke professors are among the university’s most successful examples of transferring innovative ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. Just don’t expect either of them to say the journey was easy or predictable.

The company carrying Fair’s ideas slogged across the entrepreneurial Valley of Death for 13 years. Benfey’s start-up needed five years. Both men sold companies built on their academic research to larger firms in 2013.

For Fair, the Lord-Chandran Professor of Engineering and a former corporate executive, the process started with a DARPA grant from the Defense Department and two talented post-docs. His small team thought it might be possible to guide tiny droplets of fluid around a tiny device, much the same way electrons move on an integrated circuit chip. “We used droplets like bits of information,” Fair says. However, they lacked the ability to do the things transistors and switches provide for computer chips.

Richard Fair mentors engineering students in the lab.

Richard Fair mentors engineering students in the lab.

With years of patient work and a steady supply of federal research funds, the group learned how to not only move fluid around, but to dispense, mix, separate and re-route microliter droplets using electric fields. They began doing real chemistry on a chip.

When it became time to develop the idea commercially, Ph.D. students Michael Pollack and Vamsee Pamula partnered to pitch it to the first Duke Start-Up Challenge, an entrepreneurship competition that has since grown into a major campus event attracting more than 100 teams annually.

They won, landing a $30,000 prize. And afterward “the judges came over and said ‘we’d like to put money in your idea,’ ” Fair recalls. Although the first ideas didn’t work out, Pollack and Pamula later launched Advanced Liquid Logic (ALL) in 2004, a startup in the Research Triangle Park that continued to win federal grants, with Fair serving as chairman of the scientific advisory board and a frequent collaborator.

Like many other startups, ALL was built around former students and post-docs. Pamula and Pollack “had the world’s knowledge in the field when they left here,” Fair says. “All they needed was how to build a business around it, get a management team and fund it.” Getting the right CEO was critical. Rich West, a Duke engineering alumnus and entrepreneur, filled this role and positioned ALL to turn scientific discovery into pre-commercial demonstration.

Michael Pollack, right, and Vamsee Pamula examine one of their microfluid chips.

Michael Pollack, right, and Vamsee Pamula examine one of their microfluid chips.

During the next decade at RTP, ALL grew to 80 employees on a mix of federal funds and private funds from angel investors. It amassed nearly 100 patents in microfluidics, many jointly with Duke, with hundreds more in the application process. “We had a platform technology, but we had no idea what it was good for,” Fair says. “It took us 10 years to figure out.”

Eventually the technology caught the eye of Illumina, a California company that produces advanced devices for sequencing genes. The bottleneck in using Illumina’s machines has been preparing biological samples for processing, which involves highly skilled hand-work in a lab. The microfluidic platform offers a way to automate sample preparation, making high-throughput genomics easier for a less-skilled operator and possibly opening up the clinical market for Illumina machines, Fair said.

In July 2013, Illumina bought ALL and all of its intellectual property, moving the operation to California. The deal was publicly reported as being worth “up to $96 million.”

Without getting into the particulars, Fair says about 40 percent of the sale went to the company’s employees. “The people who participated in it did great.”

Now, a year later, Illumina is close to rolling out the new technology. “I’ve seen one of the chips and it’s just magnificent. Wow. What a great thing,” Fair says. “The fact that this was a scientific discovery and now is a big platform is just really cool. I think it’s what we should be doing.”

Philip Benfey

Plant biologist Philip Benfey has helped develop new techniques for biofuel production and plant breeding.

For Benfey, a highly regarded plant biologist, commercialization was always part of his career plan. The Paul Kramer Professor of Biology at Duke and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute–Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigator, Benfey developed a technique for visualizing gene expression in growing root tips at the cellular level. In 2007, he created GrassRoots Biotechnology, a company in downtown Durham, to use the technique to develop better root systems for plants in biofuels.

His chief operating officer was Doug Eisner, a newly minted Fuqua MBA who helped develop a business plan for GrassRoots during an entrepreneurship workshop run by Fuqua’s Jon Fjeld. Eisner approached Benfey and offered to help him put the plan into action.

Biofuels were a good idea, but the timing was bad. Natural gas prices were dropping and excitement over biofuels was fading. “We pivoted, as they say in business,” Benfey says. “Agriculture became a much sexier area.”

Benfey knew big biotech companies had been working for years to develop better control over the specialized genes used in genetically modified plants. GrassRoots developed an algorithm to design “gene promoters” to do exactly that. Some of its 20 employees – all separate from Duke, with Benfey as CEO – researched synthetic promoters for genes developed by Monsanto, the agribusiness giant. Others used federal research grants to improve roots so they could use nitrogen or resist drought more efficiently.

After funding four years of research by GrassRoots, Monsanto found the interaction so beneficial that it ended up buying the company.

Benfey has since started a new company that seeks to control traits that emerge from plant breeding. “What motivates me is the potential to disrupt an industry and to do something for the developing world in terms of the big issues — food security, energy security, climate change,” he says. “All of these problems can be addressed with better plant breeding.”

The entrepreneurial spirit also continues with Fair’s former student, Vamsee Pamula. He and former ALL chief executive Rich West have started a new company that’s developing a microfluidic approach to newborn diagnostic screening.

“There aren’t a whole lot of Duke ideas (that have made it through to the buy-out stage), but there will be more,” Fair predicts.

Richard Fair and Phil Benfey are not the only Duke faculty experts whose research has led to new technologies, companies and jobs. Larry Carin from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering launched Signal Innovations Group, a 40-employee firm whose technology gathers and analyzes complicated data more effectively. Pratt professors Jungsang Kim and David Brady lead Applied Quantum Technologies, a 10-employee firm that produces advanced optical sensing systems. Learn about engineering startups and spinouts at the Pratt School of Engineering. The website for the Duke-wide Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative shares stories and resources from across the university.

Photos by Les Todd, Duke University Photography

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