Triangle Biotechnology is partnering to develop a custom, low-cost sonicator tailored to its nanodroplet technology to bring new high-throughput processing capabilities for many applications to market: DNA shearing for next-generation sequencing, chromatin fragmentation for chromatin-based assays and fixed-tissue processing.
“Processing 96 samples in parallel has been considered the holy grail for over a decade, and no one has been able to accomplish it,” said Kasoji. “There’s nothing like it on the market, so this will be the first of its kind.”
Removing a bottleneck for molecular diagnostics—and tuberculosis treatments
Beyond its initial product launch, Kasoji sees immense potential for Triangle Biotechnology to streamline molecular diagnostics. He believes it can remove a bottleneck at the sample preparation stage when scientists try to lyse (or break up) the cells of microbes like multi-drug resistant, gram-positive bacteria that have “very protective cell walls, like marbles.”
For such diseases—Kasoji points to tuberculosis as an example—better treatment involves rapid diagnosis and identification of the bacterial substrain so that doctors can prescribe the most effective antibiotic. Using traditional culturing methods, identifying the substrain can take weeks to months. In the interim, doctors can only take a scattershot approach, prescribing a concoction of drugs, some of which can counteract with one another. In contrast, molecular diagnostics can provide a rapid turnaround—taking only 24 to 48 hours to identify the substrain—but only if enough DNA can be extracted from the sample bacteria to run the diagnostic.
“The bottleneck with traditional lysis techniques is that you don’t get enough DNA out of samples, so you can’t effectively do molecular diagnostic tests,” said Kasoji. “This is where our technology really helps. We can get enough DNA out of the samples to enable molecular diagnostics and the characterization of TB and the substrain. This way, clinicians can select the appropriate treatment regimen for the patient as early as a few days, without waiting months.”
While traditional techniques extract only 1% of DNA from bacteria samples, Triangle Biotechnology’s product has shown up to a 100-fold increase in DNA extraction. “This allows tuberculosis screening and substrain identification to happen faster and cheaper, making it accessible for low-and-middle income countries,” Kasoji said.
Path to impact: Lessons from Triangle Biotechnology’s entrepreneurial journey
Early funding for Triangle Biotechnology came via personal loans—now repaid—from the three co-founders. KickStart Venture Services also funded a year-long postdoctoral fellowship for Kasoji, covering his salary while he developed the company.
The company then built its next-phase funding strategy around grants. Dayton points to the value of the Technology Enhancement Grant (TEG)—now the Translational Research Grant—from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center that the team worked on with the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization. “That TEG grant allowed us to do funded work as academics to answer commercialization questions,” said Dayton. “We got a lot of preliminary data that supported the commercialization direction and helped the team be more competitive when writing small business grants.”
Those small business grants—namely Small Business Innovate Research (SBIR) grants—were federally funded via the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute. They helped Triangle Biotechnology scientists conduct research and development. In parallel, the company participated in the One North Carolina Small Business Program, which awards matching funds to North Carolina businesses that receive federal SBIR or STTR grants.
“For companies that raise a lot of money right away, there has to be a clear line of sight to a huge profit. For Triangle Biotechnology, that line wasn’t as clear when we first started,” said Dayton. “Our route has been a slower, grassroots build, because we started with small business grants. But the advantage is that the founding team still owns the majority of the company. We’ll probably still raise money, but it won’t have to be as much, and we won’t lose as much equity as if we had gone out to do that right away.”
Currently headquartered in a lab and office space in Research Triangle Park, Triangle Biotechnology worked in several labs and locations across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, which brought cost and collaborative advantages.
“We started on a single, five-foot bench in [Dayton’s] lab. It was natural that we started there because we had access to the same manufacturing setups that we were using for making nanodroplets, and his lab has a lot of sonicators,” said Kasoji. “Plus, [Pattenden’s] lab was right next door, so we were able to do the same work using the same resources.”
When the company hired another scientist, started ordering its own equipment, and needed more space, it moved into the incubator at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation and then again to the KickStart Accelerator. “We were fortunate that UNC offered us space on campus through the facility use agreement,” said Kasoji. “It was like getting rent for free and was a helpful resource.”
PEOPLE AND TALENT
Needs evolved. Pattenden, who initially served as Triangle Biotechnology’ day-to-day expert on molecular biology, had to attend to her full-time academic responsibilities. So, when Kasoji graduated and joined as CEO, the company hired a full-time scientist. “As we expanded and got more grants, we needed more scientists on board to start increasing productivity,” he said.
As the company grew to its current five-person scientific team and two-person business staff, its talent
Dayton and Pattenden feel that the company was wise to bring on a business person with prior biotech venture success—McMahon as the company’s first CEO and current board member—to help the team navigate the business landscape. In addition to his executive role, McMahon has provided keen advice on identifying effective board members. “Working with Joe, we selected people who would work for equity and had experience expanding small ventures in North Carolina and across the U.S.,” said Pattenden. “What business decisions need to be made? How do you get a product to market? They bring different levels of scientific and business advice for moving the business forward.”
Pattenden and Kasoji, both with extensive academic expertise but no prior entrepreneurial experience, say building a startup and protecting its intellectual property (IP) was a learning endeavor. “It shifted my perspective on innovation in the lab and how we might protect intellectual property or control how it’s applied,” said Pattenden, who now educates others about IP protection. “A lot of people in my field aren’t aware of how to do this kind of thing, so now I talk to colleagues about patents a lot: ‘What can we do with this technology? Maybe we can patent it. Or is there a way to license it?’”
The team gained insights on protecting IP and building the company when working with University resources like Innovate Carolina’s Office of Technology Commercialization, whose commercialization experts provided guidance on the IP pathway and talked to potential partners on the company’s behalf. Triangle Biotechnology also turned to KickStart Venture Services for coaching and connections and to the Patent Landscaping and Market Research team to assess competition and the wider market.
Over time, Kasoji saw his entrepreneurial and executive learning shift. “It started off big picture: Who is the customer? What is the market? Does our technology actually solve an issue?” he said. “Today, a lot of my entrepreneurial research is self-development, like accounting and finances. Now that I’m taking on the CEO role, I need to speak that language.”
Beyond the University, Triangle Biotechnology has received advice from the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), which also provided two graduate student interns to conduct customer discovery and market research. The growing set of resources for startups is one reason Pattenden encourages students and faculty with ideas or inventions to take the entrepreneurial plunge. “There are a lot of resources available to help translate your technology—whether licensing it or starting a company,” said Pattenden. “I’ve seen resources grow exponentially at UNC since we started in 2017, so it’s possible to do this even when you have no experience doing it.”