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New Science Institute Spins Off Its 1st Firm

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Claremont Colleges’ newest branch, which opened two years ago with the purpose of teaching biotechnology for business purposes, has spun off its first company.

Next week the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences will unveil Ionian Technologies, a biotech company that will market machines that identify gene characteristics.

The technology is the work of two of Keck’s most accomplished scientists, Jeff Van Ness and David Galas. Van Ness has conducted groundbreaking research in the genetics of bone disease and growth, and Galas directed the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s.

The two have developed a technology that can measure very small pieces of DNA. Initially, researchers will use the technology to find the genetic expression of a disease, Galas said.

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Using a mass spectrometer, a machine that measures the weight of molecules, Keck researchers have found a way to identify any sequence in a fragment of DNA. So any condition that is genetic, such as the ability to metabolize some drugs, could be diagnosed by examining the sequence. Companies that do such diagnoses might be among Ionian’s customers.

The Keck Graduate Institute was founded on principles that differ from those of traditional graduate schools and universities. The school promised to prepare students not so much for a life of teaching and research, but to work in the burgeoning biotech, biomedical and medical instrument industries.

No other school teaches its students the mix of science and business management that this one does, Keck President Henry Riggs said at the school’s inception. Students must know not only the technology but how to manage a company and bring a product to the marketplace.

“It has always been planned to transfer technology as well as we can into societal use,” Riggs said Thursday. “One of the ways is to spin off companies with technology that was developed at KGI. That is what we have done, and we are very pleased about it.”

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The institute has a stake in the company, as do Galas and Van Ness, Riggs said. Both the school and the scientists will benefit from the company’s sales. As part of its licensing agreement with the school, Ionian will sponsor research at Keck in the same field.

Keck’s close relations with industry--a who’s who of top biotech company executives serve on its advisory board--were the focus of protests when the school opened.

Keck faculty members, who are not granted tenure, can serve as directors of companies that are spun off from their research but are barred from management positions as long as they stay on the faculty.

Spinning off a company so soon is a triumph for the institute, which has yet to graduate its first class. Van Ness boasts that all 28 students who started in 2000 are expected to graduate in May. Several students from this year’s graduating class were interns at Ionian last summer.

Next Thursday, Ionian will debut at an investors’ conference in Los Angeles. By next year, the company expects to begin shipping its technology, said President and CEO Sean Gallagher.

Gallagher expects the first customers to come from medical and agricultural laboratories. For now the company’s lone employee, Gallagher expects to hire between eight and 10 employees by the end of this year.


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