By Rajeev Tajhya
Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX
Dr. Glauco Souza is the president and CSO of Nano3D Biosciences by the day and an avid runner by the early morning. He is the innovator of 3D cell culture by magnetic levitation and also co-founder of a running club called BON which he started with his friend David Lee about the same time they started Nano3D. Dr. Souza earned his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the George Washington University and has secured several awards and fellowships in his research career. In his TEDx presentation, Dr. Souza talked about how science, friendship and sports led to his entrepreneurial journey. Here is a short interview with Dr. Souza to learn more about his struggles and success in this career path.
Tell us about yourself.
(Thinks for a few seconds) Like all of us, we work a lot. I work a lot. As scientists we have a lot of ideas. We try to sort them to see what the most valuable ones to pursue are. I used to do a lot of running which is a little harder when you have a 1-year old daughter. But soon I will get back to running. When you are doing science, especially when you are running a startup, life is busy. Life is all about work and family.
How did Nano3D Biosciences come to existence?
It was an interesting journey. It all started with myself and a friend (Dr. Thomas Kilian) who is a physicist at Rice University. We used to play water polo together. We played in college against each other. Along with Tom and another friend Rob (Dr. Robert Raphael) who is a biophysicist, we came up with a small idea and turned it into a project. When I was an Odyssey fellow at the MD Anderson, I generated a magnetized gel. We applied magnetic field and made the gel contract to manipulate and pattern the mechano-sensitive stem cells. Dan Stark (Dr. Killian’s graduate student) tested the chip which took a month to build. We applied magnetic field and the cells were levitating.
With friends: Tom (Thomas Killian), Rob (Robert Raphael) and business friend David Lee, we went to HTC (Houston Technology Center). We setup a meeting, told them what we stumbled on and they advised us to start a company. At that time, I was finishing my postdoc as Odyssey scholar in MD Anderson. It was a perfect timing for me to start a company. Then we worked on getting the IP and patent. We also published in Nature nanotech to validate the technique. Another key milestone was getting the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation. A year and half later we sold the first kit.
Who are the employees?
Currently we have seven people. There are three technical people including myself, a sales director, CFO and a few interns. Our employees and interns generally came from recommendations from our collaborators and friends. The technical people are from bio-engineering and biology backgrounds.
What has been your most rewarding accomplishment in this job?
Selling a second kit to the same customer was the most rewarding accomplishment. That means what we created works. Today, the majority of the customers are recurring customers.
What are you doing to expand your products to more customers?
That is always a challenge to a small company. Marketing costs a lot of money. We use distributers to reach our customers and that works okay. Now we are about to sign an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) agreement with Greiner Bio-One to sell our kits under their label. Since we already use Greiner’s plates to make our kits, it benefits both sides. Publications also help (to achieve new customers). In our field, credibility comes from peer reviewed articles. Customers can also reference our paper instead of trying to answer all the questions that we have to answer.
What is the most challenging thing you have experienced in Nano3D?
The most challenging thing for a startup is the funding at the early stage. We have to focus on sales but also write grants and publish to be able to walk on both of our legs. We value publications because it builds credibility of our products.
How did you adapt to the change from academic lab to setting up your own startup?
I did work in a biotech company while getting my Ph.D. I was familiar with the industrial settings. Having worked in manufacturing division helped me setup the structure of Nano3D. It needs a process when you are trying to make and sell a product. I learned about manufacturing, quality control, etc. The thing that is new in startup is fund raising, reaching to investors. You do get used to it. It is a part of the job.
Did you always want to start a company?
No, not really.
What motivates you to do your best on the job?
The belief that our products work is a big motivation. When we send our kits to customers we are accountable to it. Also, I believe that we are just scratching the surface of a bigger problem. We still need to create, adapt and solve.
Where do you see yourself or your company in ten years?
I will be in a beach (we both laugh).
Our field is changing a lot. I think we will be developing new tools to personalized medicine, phenotypic assays and tools to helping us guide how to solve problems. I am hoping that we are going to have a “smart” system to test and facilitate decision making in the line of treatment for example. We are really pushing towards throughput. Because we have more applications and more conditions to test.
Do you think there is a good future for life science industries in general?
I think so. It comes in cycles. When human genome was first sequenced, we encountered a significantly large amount of gene data – which was a huge problem at the time. That reduced the number of drugs that came out. We realize there is much more complexity to the role that every gene and every protein play. Now I think we are coming to a new cycle and maybe the answer is in the more personalized treatment.
What are your interests beyond research?
I do a lot of running. I also swim and play water polo. I like cooking; I’m a chemist (smiles). I am confident cooking Feijoada, which is a bean stew and a Brazilian traditional cuisine. (Dr. Souza is originally from Brazil).
How many marathons have you run so far?
Nine or ten. I ran my first marathon in New York ’96.
How do you balance work life and family?
It is difficult when I travel. I do spend enough time with family, and that is part of the motivation too. Then there is running. I try to run in the morning but have not done much running recently not because of the time but due to the Houston summer.
Finally, what advice can you provide to young scientists who want to choose this career path?
Timing is very important. I was finishing my postdoctoral training and had not started family when I started Nano3D. It was a perfect transition for me to start my own company.
Nothing will be perfect when you start. You have to do the best with what you have. Resources are limited. Therefore you need to prioritize and go to high value targets. Also, be flexible to change if something does not work and learn as you go.
If the company is based on technology, you need to make sure what you have works but it is even more important to know if people want to buy it. You need to solve other people’s problems. Therefore you need to listen to people and the market. As scientists in academia we learned how to think about problem solving in our project. But in startups, you need to think about solving people’s problems. We teamed up with Rice business school and they did market analysis for us. We use the analysis scheme for grant application and sales pitch.