“We had a lot of ideas, but not a lot of money. Over the years, the SBIR/STTR program has funded most of the technology and product development at Biolog, resulting in our unique and innovative portfolio of cell assay products.”
– Barry Bochner, Ph.D., President, CEO & CSO of Biolog
Phenotypes, genotypes, and cell physiology, why?
Biolog, Inc. began operations over 30 years ago with a product line built upon patented technology that greatly simplifies cell testing. The company produces and sells a variety of test kits and instruments to meet the needs of a wide, diverse customer base—especially pharmaceutical, biotech, cosmetics, and medical device companies. Other consumers include university and government research laboratories, labs testing for diseases in animals and plants, labs performing environmental monitoring, and companies or organizations involved in production or testing of food and drink. Using this technology as a base, Biolog pursued and received SBIR awards from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health, National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The grants allowed Biolog to initiate an R&D program to develop Phenotype MicroArray technology after recognizing a need for broader evaluation of a cell in basic biology research. The technology, used to scan and evaluate the physiology of a cell, provides scientists a tool that would allow them to see how cell function changes when certain parameters (e.g., environmental or genetic) are altered. Biolog founder Barry Bochner says, “That is one of the holy grails of basic biology research: Changes in genotype result in changes in phenotype.” Essentially, the goal was to develop technology for scanning cell physiology that would function in an analogous fashion to scanning animal physiology. The technology has been used successfully for 17 years to study microbial cells and can now be used to study human cells as models of human disorders. Two recent examples in neuroscience are analyzing cells from patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
SBIR funding was crucial to Biolog’s success. Starting out, their ideas were plentiful, but capital was not. The SBIR/STTR program is responsible for funding most of the technology and product development at Biolog, resulting in an innovative portfolio of cell assay products. Over 30 years in existence, Biolog has succeeded in securing multiple Phase I and II grants to continue researching and developing ideas. And although you may have heard the age-old slogan, “Good help is hard to find,” Barry Bochner was glad not to have that challenge. “We are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it is relatively easy to find both scientific and business expertise; but funding salaries is the real challenge.” When Biolog started, there were three employees, now, there are over 40. Biolog has had the opportunity to lead the way in developing cell phenotyping technology; which is currently being used by pioneering labs in diverse fields such as infectious disease, cancer, and neuroscience research. Without SBIR/STTR funding, this would not have been possible.
In the early stages of commercialization, there are often challenges that are sector specific. Bochner says their approach is focused in cellular biology with underpinnings of old fashioned biochemistry, metabolism, and physiology. Their challenge with commercialization is that most scientists are trained in more modern techniques of analyzing DNA and RNA. Much of the commercialization challenge comes in having to educate and convince scientists to consider approaches that are typically written off as old-fashioned. Fortunately, trends are often cyclical and Biolog has found a new commercial audience in industrial cultivation of cells (known as bioprocess development) and in metabolic modeling and "systems biology". Regardless, Biolog is a small business that has survived and grown over the years and even in a fickle economy by selling products instead of by raising additional capital. With approximately half of sales being from international clients, this has also buffered Biolog in times when the US economy and investment in biology R&D were in decline.
With digital marketing playing a larger part in the visibility and promotion of business and services, Biolog continues to connect with researchers and clients through their website , LinkedIn , and frequent webinars .
Information for this success story was gathered through an interview that was conducted by Patti Swayne, the NIH SBIR/STTR Communications Coordinator.