Posted: May 1, 2012

RESEARCHER PROFILE: The Business in Science

Emma J. Spaulding

Image: Dr. Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D.

“When I started my career, there was only one type of opportunity available: finish your training, then get a faculty position and grow in academic enterprises.”

Though this single option was all he was offered, Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D. forged his own way, starting many successful companies and serving on the board of directors of those companies, all while maintaining an active research interest in genetics. Dr. Kucherlapati notes the difference between when he started his career and now. “Young scientists have many opportunities, and the field has blossomed in many different ways. Academia, industry, policy, lawyers, patents – there are so many different possibilities for a young scientist.”

Dr. Kucherlapati’s early career aligns with the track he mentioned first. After earning his Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was offered a postdoctoral fellowship in genetics with Frank Ruddle, Ph.D. at Yale. The Ruddle lab was at the forefront of human gene mapping and Dr. Kucherlapati was able to fully immerse himself in human genetics. He says, “My postdoc experience at Yale was exceptional. I was involved in the field of human genetics, when it was in its early stages. When I first started, there were a handful of genes mapped to the human genome - this was in the 1970s. Now with the Human Genome Project, you can map 25,000 genes. It’s changed dramatically.”

Dr. Kucherlapati contributed to the Human Genome Project and since then has held a number of prestigious appointments and directorships at universities. He was the Lola and Saul Kramer Professor of Molecular Genetics and the University Chairman of the Department of Molecular Genetics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Paul C. Cabot Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, as well as the founding director of the Harvard Medical School - Partners HealthCare Center for Genetics and Genomics in Boston. In addition, he is a co-Principal Investigator of a Genome Characterization Center in The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Though it seems that Dr. Kucherlapati has followed the traditional path, he has also founded several innovative companies and still serves on some of the boards today.

Starting Up a Start-Up

Though Dr. Kucherlapati is highly trained as a scientist and primary investigator, he did not have business experience when he began his first company, Cell Genesis, in 1988. “I learned everything on the job,” he says. According to Dr. Kucherlapati, the life of a start-up company begins when a person or a group of people from a medical or academic center develop a novel idea. He says it could be a new platform, approach or strategy, but fundamentally a piece of novel intellectual property. Next, they share the idea with investors who understand the new idea and hopefully, appreciate it. Once they secure funding from investors, the scientists turned businesspeople start the company and execute the new idea. As Dr. Kucherlapati sees it, “It’s an opportunity to contribute to the economic well being of the country by starting these small businesses.” If the business becomes successful, the company can earn revenue from the public market, by selling the commodity. 

Dr. Kucherlapati might have had success even with his unorthodox business beginning because of a maxim he says would apply to any enterprise: “Surround yourself with people who are better than you.” And Dr. Kucherlapati has indeed been successful; the derivation of the businesses he has been involved in looks like a weaving family tree – companies spawning companies which were acquired by other companies. As a veteran of the industry, he now is able to offer this advice to future start-up founders: “Get the best investors with the most amount of experience in starting something new. Starting something new is not easy and very difficult to do. You’re going to hit lots of bumps. You need people with experience in finding those bumps and how to navigate around them.”

As a scientist and businessman, Dr. Kucherlapati is in a unique position to observe what venture capitalists bring to science. Venture capitalists are a special type of investors that also bring managerial and technical knowledge. Venture capitalists invest money in new companies. If the company becomes successful, the venture capitalists would make a significant return on their investment. However, if the company fails, the venture capitalists would lose their money. This creates a high-risk, but high-potential investment opportunity. In Dr. Kucherlapati’s experience, venture capitalists are very interested in investing in science-based companies. “Last year," he says, “venture capitalists put $3 billion into biotechnology, and that number is somewhat lower than usual because of the economy.” These small innovation-focused businesses produce new products, new jobs, and according to Dr. Kucherlapati, “a lot of excitement.”

TCGA Data: Not Just for Research

TCGA data are an invaluable resource for scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit. The freely available high quality data allow scientists to immediately begin leveraging data into a business, without the initial cost of generating the data themselves. Dr. Kucherlapati also sees the potential in the data. He believes that TCGA's goal of characterizing over 20 types of cancer genomes will deepen our understanding of cancer and will aid researchers developing more therapeutic opportunities. And he doesn’t think he’s the only one that sees the potential. “Everyone in the science and business community is looking at the results from TCGA to define their own programs for particular types of drugs and therapies.” Dr. Kucherlapati notes the historical significance of TCGA. “To my knowledge, there has never been such an effort, an onslaught on a particular type of disease, that’s been comparable to TCGA.”

TCGA data aren’t only for research. As outlined in TCGA policies, the data can be used for any legitimate research purpose, including leveraging them for business opportunities. New intellectual property can be derived from the data, and that intellectual property can become an innovative business, creating jobs and building the knowledge economy. As the data continue to grow, business and research opportunities will only multiply.