Feb. 10, 2012

From dream to startup: Glycobia becomes McGovern Center's first client

Robert Barker/University Photography
President David Skorton hands Adam Fisher the "key" to the McGovern Center's business incubator, where Glycobia has taken up residence as its first client.
Robert Barker/University Photography
Adam Fisher, chief science officer of Glycobia Inc., addresses the crowd at the McGovern Center opening, Feb. 9.
Robert Barker/University Photography
Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center.
Robert Barker/University Photography
Matthew DeLisa, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Glycobia co-founder.

Several years ago, when Adam Fisher, Ph.D. '08, was still a graduate student, he and colleagues dreamed up an entirely new way to synthesize human drugs called glycoproteins, which are used to treat a range of conditions from cancer to multiple sclerosis and are a fast-growing corner of the biopharmaceutical industry.

On Feb. 9, a major milestone of that dream was celebrated at the opening of Cornell's McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences. Fisher's company, Glycobia Inc., is the first to rent lab and office space in the center's business incubator facility. The company moved into the center Jan. 16.

Bringing Glycobia to the McGovern Center, Cornell President David Skorton said, is a "realization of the land-grant mission of Cornell." While it's one point in the process for sowing the seeds of venture development, Skorton said, it is important to celebrate when the work reaches a certain point, and "today is a big point," he said.

The McGovern Center assists high-potential, early-stage life science spinoff companies that are founded by inventors at Cornell's Ithaca, Geneva, New York City and Qatar campuses. Its mission is to help young companies prove out their technologies, solidify their management teams, strengthen their business plans and obtain investments to support further growth.

"We're creating high-tech jobs -- life sciences jobs -- we're retaining these jobs, and we're fostering economic development right here in Ithaca," said Lou Walcer, director of the center.

The science behind Glycobia originated in the lab of Matthew DeLisa, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Fisher's Ph.D. adviser and Glycobia founder.

The company's product is low-cost "glycoengineering" technology, which works by modifying such common bacteria as E. coli to directly produce human peptide, protein and antibody drugs. Today, protein-based drugs are made by culturing mammalian cells, but this method is costly, time-consuming and hard to control.

"We can make these drugs better," said Fisher, Glycobia's chief science officer, in his remarks. "We can do things that are simply not possible in any other existing or emerging technology platform."

Glycobia's bacteria are a manufacturing platform for human therapeutic glycoproteins, which are increasingly becoming a key player in development of drugs to treat a number of diseases. Glycoproteins, DeLisa said, are "regular old proteins" modified at very specific amino acids with sugars. About 70 percent of the human body carries these modifications, so there is a great interest in understanding how they occur.

The idea is to introduce the machinery of glycosylation, which is the process by which proteins are modified by sugar molecules, into the E. coli cells, and to easily go in and tailor the sugar structures for specific applications, DeLisa said.

Robert Buhrman, senior vice provost for research and vice president for technology transfer, intellectual property and research policy, acknowledged the many bureaucratic dimensions of getting a center like this administratively ready for business. A tax-exempt research enterprise like Cornell becoming a means to support for-profit companies living off federal and investor funds, and growing them into something that will have economic impact on the region, is "not easy to do," Buhrman said, and he commended those involved for persevering.

The McGovern Center, which has space for seven wet lab clients and offices, was originally established through a $7.5 million gift from the McGovern family, which includes Kevin McGovern '70, his wife, Lisa, and their children, Jarrett '03 and Ashley '08. The center is supported through Cornell's Research Division and NYSTAR's Biotechnology Institute at Cornell.