Luke Blauch, PhD: Screening the Function of Millions of Biologics
When Dr. Luke Blauch launched DropXcell earlier this year in Boston, he was bringing years of hopes and dreams to life. “I had wanted to start a company for a really long time,” he recalls. “When you’re a grad student at Stanford, everyone is talking about starting a company, so I definitely thought about it.” However, he wasn’t ready to be an entrepreneur right when he finished his doctoral program. He explains, “My rationale was that I should first join a small business and learn what it looks like.” He proceeded to join five science-based startups, including two while he was in graduate school.
A Leap of Faith
When the latest startup closed down, it became the catalyst for going out on his own. “I really liked the last company,” Dr. Blauch says, “but they shut down, so I needed something else to do.” As he evaluated his options, he decided he had what he needed: the experience of working in several startups, a good idea that nobody was doing, and the conviction to go for it. “Honestly, everything just aligned, and it became the right time. When the opportunity presented itself, I literally took a leap of faith and decided to start my own company.”
An Adventure in Microfluidics
DropXcell operates in the field of microfluidics. Dr. Blauch explains, “Microfluidics is exactly what it sounds like – tiny drops of fluid.” Microfluidics is an emerging field that represents a fusion of physics, chemistry, biology, fluid dynamics, microelectronics, and material science (Niculescu et. al., 2021). He continues, “We take tiny fluidic chips that are infused with miniature pipes, and we use them to manipulate cells. We can put cells into tiny little droplets less than a billionth of a liter in size and perform millions or even billions of experiments on these cells.” Microfluidics is being employed successfully in a wide variety of applications, including nanoparticle preparation; drug encapsulation, delivery, and targeting; cell analysis; diagnosis; and cell culture (Niculescu et. al., 2021).
The Challenges in Antibody Discovery
Today’s biotech firms use antibodies for a variety of purposes – including to target drugs to specific cancers – but it takes considerable time and investment to find an antibody that will suit a particular goal. Dr. Blauch explains that the standard approach to antibody discovery has been to screen the binding of an antibody to a target. “You can screen billions of antibodies this way,” he explains, “but when an antibody binds to the target, it doesn’t reveal anything about whether it affects the disease pathway of the cell.” That is what scientists call “therapeutic function,” the ability of an antibody to affect the disease pathway of the cell. He continues, “Even though they can screen billions of antibodies for binding, right now most biotechs only have the time and resources to screen hundreds of antibodies for function.” This means that most firms never get to test thousands of promising compounds that they would like to screen for function.
Applying Microfluidics to Antibody Discovery
Thus, as a result of time and resource constraints, promising potential antibodies are left untested, some of which might have improved patient outcomes. Dr. Blauch explains how DropXcell addresses this problem using microfluidics: “We create tiny droplets – less than one billionth of a liter in size – that contain single cells that produce antibodies and other cells which react to the antibody. By miniaturizing the functional screen, we’re able to screen 10,000 times more compounds for antibody function and do so at a fraction of the cost of traditional screening approaches.” Every additional compound that is tested improves the probability of discovering a drug that truly benefits patients. Dr. Blauch has a vision for how DropXcell can make a lasting difference, comparing it to the evolution of the yeast display technique behind the binding method that is standard today: “I hope that within a few years every biotech company is doing high-throughput, function-first screening, and that DropXcell has been a really big part of that journey. 25 years ago, nobody was doing yeast display, and now everybody is doing that for antibody discovery. So, I hope that 25 years from now, everybody is doing high-throughput, function-first screening, and patients are reaping the benefits.”
Reducing the Cost of Drug Development
DropXcell is committed not only to improving the efficacy of future drugs, but also to reducing their cost. “Drugs are way too expensive,” Dr. Blauch explains, “especially new drugs. But unfortunately, they have to be because it can take ten years to make a new drug and it can cost $2 billion. The only way we can decrease the costs is to decrease the time and the risk.” By enabling companies to test more compounds more quickly – and by increasing the probability that the screened compound will function effectively in clinical trials – the microfluidics approach can contribute meaningfully to reducing the overall cost of new drug development. Dr. Blauch continues, “Microfluidics has. . .been able to cut the costs of DNA sequencing of the human genome from $10 million per genome to $1,000. We’re trying to bring that same decrease. . .to antibody discovery.”
Using Existing Lab Equipment
When Dr. Blauch founded DropXcell, he placed high priority on developing a process that biotechs could use in their own lab, without having to add complex new equipment. “DropXcell is the only company that has experience in antibody discovery with double emulsion technology. This technology, unlike other commercial suppliers, actually saves the client more than $300,000 in capital costs because they don’t have to buy a separate sorter.” The biotech firm working with DropXcell can use its own “flow activated cell sorter, or FACS,” which is a standard piece of equipment that is common in biotech labs for sorting single cells, now applied to these tiny droplets of water. This means that the client can perform experiments in its own lab, instead of having to pay to outsource to a specialized lab. “You don’t have to be an expert in this,” Dr. Blauch says. “We partner with you to make sure that you are successful on these functional screens.”
Being the Entrepreneur
Dr. Blauch has been an early startup team member before, joining as the fourth employee at one venture-funded firm and the thirteenth at another. However, now he is the entrepreneur for the first time. “What surprised me the most about being an entrepreneur is that sales is really an art form. It’s about finding value for the customer – exploring what they really need and showing them that your service is really valuable to them.” He describes devouring numerous sales books and learning sales techniques just as challenging to learn now as engineering was in grad school.
A Thriving Support Network
One of Dr. Blauch’s insights about entrepreneurship is the importance of support. “I’ve learned that when you’re starting a business, it’s really important to have a thriving support network.” He laughs about the Hollywood archetype of the 19-year-old college dropout who has no friends and makes enemies starting his own business. “I think it’s actually very unusual for a business to start that way. More often, you have a 30- or 40-year-old who has friends and family who are really encouraging them to start their business.” He relates that he could not be running DropXcell without his friends and family. “I have that. I have my wife’s support, I have my friends – it’s just so critical when you’re starting your business to have that because you’re literally alone. There’s nobody to tell you what to do.” He smiles ruefully as he relates how much work there is to do when you run your own business. “The biggest challenge is the consistent discipline that’s required to go out there every day, be your own boss, not be accountable to anybody, and still get all your work done. If you’re not disciplined, it can be really easy to just not do any of it.”
Setting an Example
Although his general approach is upbeat and positive, Dr. Blauch also discusses the classic trials of entrepreneurship: the fear of running out of cash, the disappointment of losing a promising sale, and the uncertainty of what to do when you’re trying to create a complex deal for the first time. “What really inspires me to keep going is my faith in God and encouragement from my wife and my friends and my family. And, being able to tell my kids that they should follow their passions. Because I’m doing it – I did it. Even if I fail, it’s still worthwhile to go after things and try to achieve them.”
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Niculescu, A.G., Chircov, C., Bîrcă, A.C., Grumezescu, A.M. (2021, February 18). Fabrication and applications of microfluidic devices: A review. International Journal of Molecular Science 22(4). doi: 10.3390/ijms22042011. Retrieved on November 3, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7921936/