Ben Miller, of Adarza BioSystems. / Photo by CARLOS ORTIZ
If the new economy were reduced to an ideal recipe, Rochester’s might look something like this:
A cup of the imaging genius that a century ago gave rise to Eastman Kodak. Another cup of the marketing brilliance that made Xerox a household name.
A dash of the optical skills that elevated Bausch + Lomb above the pack. A dollop of the engineering talent that is part of Rochester’s bedrock.
Bake in the research laboratories of the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. Baste with government funds and venture capital.
Serves: As many as the future allows.Adarza BioSystems Inc., a University of Rochester innovation being turned into an everyday, commercially applicable medical device, is at a point somewhere between the defrosting and the baking.
Like Kodak’s camera and Xerox’s copier, Adarza, based at the High Tech Rochester new business incubator, is really one core product upon which success will rise or fall.
Essentially, it’s a biomedical screen or sensor that at microscopic levels uses reflecting laser light to pick out particular biomarkers, or molecules.
More broadly, Adarza, a Sanskrit word meaning reflected image, feeds Rochester’s economic future with the prototypical recipe of imaging innovation, optical precision and engineering brilliance that is calibrated to a mobile, do-it-now medical culture.
Benjamin Miller, a faculty member and biomedical research scientist at UR, did the heavy intellectual lifting on Adarza technology in partnership with UR chemist Lewis Rothberg.
“We realized that our version of this technology might have a real future as a commercial product when we figured out how to use something simple — in this case, laser detection — to allow us do many tests at once,” Miller said.
The device represents, for its founders, the future of diagnostic testing.
Yet its success depends to some degree on factors as old as the ancient marketplace.
Does it solve a problem a lot of people confront? Is it easy to use? Is it light enough to move? Will it do a lot of things at once, or just one?
Does it cost an arm and a leg?
Having peered into the high-tech future with confidence, Miller and the Adarza team — CEO Rand Henke and chief operating officer Terry Gronwall — now must deal with the timeless issues of the marketplace.
The fledgling company has already dealt with part of it, having developed a prototype of the device to be shown to interested investors and relevant government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.
That critical step in development — from the pure science of the lab to the functionality of the prototype — puts Miller and his Adarza team ahead of many of the biomedical advances achieved in Rochester laboratories.
Some never see the light of commercial application and financial reward.
“What worked for us is that the technology office at the University of Rochester put us in touch with Excell Partners, a venture capital company connected to the university,” Henke said. “They provided us with enough, $100,000, to develop the prototype and help us get to the next stage.”
Yet many a bright shining prototype, especially in the competitive medical device marketplace, has difficulty getting to the next levels, which consist of engineering a prototype that can be used in beta-type testing, determining a use that fits a particular and timely commercial need and, finally, manufacturing a product for broad consumption.
“To bring an in vitro diagnostic device, which is what we have, to market can cost $25 million,” Henke said. Adarza’s a long way from that, he and Gronwall agreed. The company won a $1.8 million federal grant to help develop a beta prototype, and NIH is interested in the technology and will help more down the road. But more government support and more private equity is needed.
Bridging that gap — surviving the “valley of death,” as the paucity of financing has been described — is a challenge akin to the problems Miller and his biomedical brethren confront in the laboratory. Gov. David Paterson has proposed a $25 million state seed fund for just the kind of emerging university-to-Main Street businesses that Adarza represents.
“It’s a critical and exciting step for New York,” said Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of Excell Partners. Her voice and that of others persuaded a special gubernatorial task force to propose a seed fund.
“The governor, to his credit, understands the need,” said Mark Peterson, head of the economic development agency Greater Rochester Enterprise.
But private venture had a down year in 2009. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association found that the number of deals fell by 30 percent last year and the dollar amount of investments slipped by 37 percent, to $17.7 billion.
How is Adarza navigating the arid valley? Online, to some degree. Adroit use of the Web world allows new high-tech companies to connect with customers, investors, academics and a virtual community where technology like Adarza’s can be displayed and marketed with manageable expense.
Startups, said Henke and Gronwall, are advised at conferences to use Facebook and Twitter to reach others who can spread the word. “We’re often told how important social media are,” Henke said.
In a way, Adarza’s idea, and the perilous terrain it must traverse, resembles what George Eastman, bursting with ideas for an instant camera, faced more than a century ago.
He, like Adarza’s founders, believed in what he had. He just had to make others believe in it, too.