Prof learns capital is key to develop technology

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Genetic engineering technology developed at the University of Minnesota, as exciting as anything in recent memory from the university, is being commercially developed by a publicly held French company rather than a Minnesota start-up.

Before concluding it’s somehow disappointing that this is the case, remember that what’s really disappointing is having a local start-up control a university-developed technology and then slowly and painfully go out of business.

Letting a company that already has enough resources in hand develop this groundbreaking idea into a business may prove to be a model of how best to get university inventions into the market. It’s well worth watching.

Maybe what’s most interesting is that the professor at the center of this story, Dan Voytas, learned firsthand some years ago what trials a biotech entrepreneur with big plans and small capital goes through. About the best thing he can say for that experience is that he learned he perhaps was a better scientist than businessman.

Voytas today heads the U’s Center for Genome Engineering. He came to the university in 2008 from Iowa State, he said, because he was attracted by the prospect of working with many of the U’s staff.

His work for years has been in the field of plant genetics, and in a couple of recent conversations he came across as so warm and engaging that you want to sign up for the genetics class he teaches.

His research, with colleagues here and at other universities, has largely been about discovering a faster, more precise way to genetically engineer plants. That may sound creepy, but it’s another form of the plant breeding that has been practiced for thousands of years. Instead of hybrids in a field, it’s being done in a lab.

When Voytas came to Minnesota, he was well-known for expertise with a technique using what’s called zinc fingers, named for a tiny protrusion on certain proteins that can lock onto part of the DNA in a cell. The problem with zinc fingers is that they were really hard to engineer, and as Voytas put it, “we beat our heads against the wall for a decade.”

A former colleague from Iowa State, Adam Bogdanove, had good results from some DNA targeting work with an enzyme called a “transcription activator-like effector,” or TAL effector. Voytas and Bogdanove, who has since moved to Cornell University, then thought to join the TAL effector with a particular enzyme that would change the DNA at the point the TAL effector had located.

The result in Voytas’ lab was stunning. Voytas said they realized immediately that what could take months with zinc fingers now took next to no time.

Now known as TALENs, this discovery has been highlighted in Science magazine, which named it a runner-up as breakthrough of the year in 2012.

“It’s a technology that delivers down to the single letter of the genetic alphabet, with the ability to edit that alphabet,” said Robert Elde, dean of the U’s College of Biological Sciences. “And it enables that across almost all living organisms. That power was just not in hand before.”

Elde shares with Voytas an interest in seeing exciting U discoveries introduced to the market. The U has a well-developed technology transfer practice, and the common approach would be to license the technology to a start-up in which Voytas could have some involvement. The U helped launch a record 14 start-ups in its most recent fiscal year.

Except Voytas himself has been through that before, as co-founder and CEO of a failed start-up, and he was wiser this time.

His Iowa deal wasn’t just a quiet disappointment for him. The company, called Phytodyne, was so high-profile in Iowa that the story of its failure appeared on the front page of the Des Moines Register. When Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack, announced state financial support for Phytodyne in 2004, the potential he was talking up was nothing less than revolutionizing the state’s agricultural economy.

The venture failed for complicated reasons related to intellectual property, and maybe just the simplest one of all for start-ups: It never had enough money. For all involved, Voytas said, “it was just a lot of human anguish.”

One of the things Voytas did get was biotech industry contacts, among them executives of Cellectis, an ambitious French biotech firm formed in 1999.

Cellectis is no Pfizer, but it’s got more resources than any start-up, with cash of 21.8 million euros as of the end of 2012. Cellectis wanted to expand in the North American plant sciences market and wanted Voytas to help. Voytas agreed, and in 2010 Cellectis formed Cellectis Plant Sciences, now located in New Brighton.

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