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“Science is hard”: QA with Cofactor Genomics’ Dave Messina

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Founders of Cofactor Genomics at Y Combinator in California.

St. Louis-based Cofactor Genomics uses RNA to diagnose diseases earlier and faster than current medical technology. This summer they participated in Y Combinator. With past experience working on the Human Genome Project, Cofactor Genomics is one of the hottest startups in biotech. SPN caught up with co-founder Dave Messina at CIC in the Cortex Innovation Community.

SPN: Theranos has been in the news a lot lately. There’s been a lot of controversy around their claims of DNA testing and a lot of questions about hype versus reality when it comes to traditional research versus the speed of Silicon Valley style startups. What’s your take on Theranos as a traditional researcher going through Y Combinator?

DM: I don’t know any of the details on Theranos so I really can’t comment. I’ve only heard the rumors. But I can tell you what our perspective is and how we’re approaching what we’re doing. We’ve been scientists for a long time. We are hardcore scientists, most of us have PhDs. We are quite familiar with the standards that are necessary for that. We’ve been working with the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world for several years now. We have 9 of largest 15 under contract, and they have the highest standards [in the industry].

At the end of the day, science is hard, and getting the biology right is hard. But we’ve already seen the huge impact software has had on biology. It’s an accelerating curve. The next 30-40 years of biology will be like the last 30-40 years of computing. When you think about where computer science was in 1960, we’re at 1960 in biology today.

SPN: One of the things that came out of the Theranos story is the LDT “loophole.” My understanding is that some labs don’t have to be under FDA regulation in order to do some kinds of laboratory work.

DM: You’ve got it exactly right. This is going on all the time. And this is how new tests are developed. There’s usually someone in a hospital, university or independent lab who has some new test, and they have to measure how sensitive is it, what’s the accuracy. It’s very similar to what you have to present to the FDA. You present all this information to the practitioner, and they can use it in conjunction with all the other information they have. This allows new technology to get into the hands of doctors, but the doctors are making the decisions with all the information. It’s a very tried and true process.

SPN: What’s your experience working with with advisers that don’t understand the science? Do you ever run into situations where you think, “These people don’t get what we’re doing?”

DM: Actually, that was a surprise. Anyone who’s an expert in any field has an obligation to be able to explain what they do, and anyone who’s raised money for anything realizes they have to do this. Any company, any project, once you get into it, it’s hard to communicate it. That’s a key skill. This is something we’ve had to do for years with our clients. We’ve been a consultative, educative business for a long time.

On the flip side, all businesses have common traits, and the people at Y Combinator have had a lot to teach us. They have an outside perspective, so they can give us really great insights. They’ve seen the patterns and know what the shape of a successful business is.

“We had a great time being out in Silicon Valley, but we’ve been quite successful here”

SPN: When I talk to startups in the medical space, they often say, “If I had know how difficult it was to innovate in this industry, in terms of regulation, I probably wouldn’t have gone into it.” What’s regulation been like for you?

DM: Right now we’re working on getting our CAP/CLIA certification. Every lab that processes patient samples has this accreditation, and we’ve been a research lab up to now. Our clients have been pushing us [toward more clinical work] and it fits our larger goals. We hope that one day you can see your doctor, he draws your blood, he sends it to our lab, and we will be able to detect very early on if you’re showing signs of that.

SPN: Compared to drug development, from idea to patient use, how long does it take for you to bring something to clinical use? 

DM: Way shorter. Developing a drug with therapeutic use is a long road. It’s very difficult to do. With diagnostics, you’ve just got information. What we’re excited about is that we’ve developed a method which we believe is repeatable across multiple diseases and have a much shorter timeline.

SPN: Tell me more about St. Louis. How has being in St. Louis impacted your company?

DM: First of all, we started here. All the founders came out of Wash U and the Genome Institute there. That along with the other universities in town, Monsanto, the Danforth Center, the botanical gardens–it’s a really rich environment for biology. That’s been a tremenous community for us. We’ve been able to hire amazing people here. We had a great time being out in Silicon Valley, but we’ve been quite successful here, and we don’t feel pressure to move. People assume you have to go to the coast to do great work. It’s just not true.

Ryan Pendell is the Manging Editor of Silicon Prairie News. 

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