Brian Smith and Irene Susantio won the 2008 Wharton Business Plan Competition for their start-up company, Solixia. These two Wharton MBA grads are experts in the new field of nanotechnology, tiny technology that is changing the way different industries operate.
In Solixia’s case, that industry is health care. Solixia is developing products that allow doctors to target radiation specifically to solid tumors. Its products include a breast cancer imaging agent and a treatment for ovarian cancer. Both are based on a technology that Smith and Susantio have developed called “Hot Dot,” a radioactive nanoparticle that can be attached to tumor-targeting antibodies, peptides or small molecules. Solixia received a $161,000 Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Cancer Institute in August, 2010. Smith and Susantio plan to use the grant to pay for additional lab testing on their products in preparation to begin clinical testing on humans in 2012.
In the U.S. market, at least 16,000 breast cancer patients per year would benefit from screening with Solixia’s tiny imaging agent, which would permit earlier and more accurate diagnosis and disease staging. Smith and Susantio talked with Knowledge@Wharton High School about nanotech, quantum dots used to emit light, and the future of their business.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: What exactly is nanotechnology? And how is it changing the way the world works?
Brian Smith: Nanotechnology is a technology where novel properties are derived from making a macro material or a large material very small. It is not necessarily nanobots running around in the bloodstream or anything that is nearly so complex or sophisticated. It could very well be at some point. But the basic paradigm of nanotechnology is that the smallness of something leads to new properties we couldn’t otherwise achieve.
KWHS: How did you become interested in nanotech?
Smith: It was serendipity really. I was an undergraduate and started working in my studies for material science. At the time nanotechnology was really just becoming more of a mainstream science. And I had a professor who suggested it might be something that I would really enjoy. So I pursued it and just sort of took off from there.
Irene Susantio: In my case my background was in chemical engineering. And this is really a new thing for me, nanotechnology. But I think the overall philosophy of analyzing or problem solving is the same, has the same discipline in science, but it has a very novel application. It is for oncology [the branch of medicine that studies tumors (cancer)], which is actually what attracts me to nanotechnology.
KWHS: Were you interested in this in high school?
Susantio: It is actually quite new for me, because in high school I was [planning on being] a chemical engineer. The basic science, the chemistry is the same, but as Brian mentioned, the scale is different and the application is different. I think the novelty of the application and the approach that Brian mentioned is what actually attracted me.
Smith: Nanotechnology as a discipline unto itself really had its genesis in the late 1990s. And for better or worse, that actually was after I was in high school. So I don’t know that I or any of my peers at the time were really aware of the opportunities that nanotechnology provided. It was something that evolved as we evolved as scientists and professionals.
KWHS: So it sounds like science was a key interest of yours back then.
Smith: Absolutely. Personally my experience in high school was very heavy on physics, chemistry and mathematics, which continued right on through my undergraduate and subsequently graduate education. It’s interesting how I made my educational choices along that path because I think very often I missed opportunities that were also interesting to me simply because I focused on things that I had a natural interest in or proclivity towards. And so I didn’t necessarily have that broad perspective that I’ve had more recently.
KWHS: Tell us about your winning anti-cancer treatment and why you call it the “Hot Dot.”
Smith: It’s called a Hot Dot because it is a nanoparticle that is made out of radioactive atoms. In nanotechnology, there is a material called a quantum dot that is used to emit light. So we borrowed that nomenclature and named ours hot dot. This is a nanoparticle that emits radioactivity that can be used either to image a cancer or a disease site in the body or to treat it. So our technology derives its special properties by the fact that it is so small it’s able to penetrate into parts of the body that other types of drugs might not necessarily be able to reach.
KWHS: What made you decide to start a business?
Susantio: Partially it was personal motivation and also that everything made sense in [terms of] timing and opportunity, [including] the partnerships. Nanotechnology fascinates me because of its novel application and the potential impact it could have in treating cancer. Also, we work together very well. For me I just thought, okay, now or never. I decided to join Solixia and then work with Brian. It was a perfect combination.
KWHS: How did the two of you meet?
Susantio: Brian and I were classmates at Wharton. But we never really got connected until summer of the first year. Brian was looking for a partner for his start-up business. We talked for two months. I liked the technology. I like the trust and collaborativeness with Brian. I decided to get on board.
KWHS: How important is this technology in the world of cancer treatment?
Smith: It could be very significant. At this point, it’s very early in its development and testing. So we can’t say for certain. The potential is substantial. Cancer is an evolving disease, both in terms of the way the disease progresses and in terms of how we understand it. So it’s important that science continue to develop a large array of technologies for treating and detecting cancer. It’s not something where there’s going to be a singular solution, the silver bullet that we’d love to have. So this is one piece of what is ultimately a much larger armamentarium. But it’s potentially significant in terms of its impact.
KWHS: Are there other things out there like this? Or is it truly novel?
Smith: One of the challenges that we’ve had in terms of starting our business is the fact our technology is a bit of a paradigm shift over what is presently being used. And that makes it very difficult to communicate to people who might be used to more traditional approaches for treating cancer. So there are elements that are certainly shared with other types of cancer treatments. But what we have is truly very novel and innovative.
KWHS: Now that you have won $20,000 in the Wharton contest, what’s the future for your business? What exciting things are happening to develop it?
Susantio: That’s a big question. Winning the competition is just very nice because we have public exposure. People know a little bit more about the cancer treatment, about the options available and then the change that Solixia can bring into this sector. However, it’s just a small step for bigger things to come. Right now we are actually going to do the clinical studies and raise funds and then make people also more aware of our technology as Brian mentioned, because there is a lot of paradigm change based on what we have right now. So that’s our job, to communicate that, make people more familiar.
KWHS: How do you do that?
Susantio: Just connect to many people in our community through the Wharton network as well, which is, I think, very powerful. There are many people who have actually contacted us after winning the business plan competition. They’re just getting to know the technology or see how they can help. So it’s a very powerful community. And then also the Philadelphia entrepreneurial community is very responsive. Several people who help us with small details, that actually a lot of start-ups rely on, like accounting or legal or insurance assistance and so on. [These don’t] seem important, but they are part of the building blocks of the business. So these people come to us and then help us build the business.
Smith: One of the truths about entrepreneurship is that it’s always difficult. And it’s particularly difficult in today’s economic environment. So in terms of next steps, we’re really trying to demonstrate that our technology works for as little money as possible. And that’s a bit different than the approach that one might take in academia. In more of a traditional academic path the interest is more on the science and how does it work, what is the underlying fundamental chemistry or physics or biology. In a company, the focus is really towards moving it towards the clinic because we have an innovation that ultimately could help people. That’s our goal, to bring it to the point where we can help people.
Susantio: So it’s not just figuring out how the component may work, for example, in live cells, in animals and eventually in humans, but we have to think broader than that. So we have to think what are the regulations, who are the users and so on. And then after we have a complete picture, then we can be surer that this will find a great use in the future.
KWHS: Give us an image of the day to day. Do you spend a lot of time in the laboratory?
Smith: Initially no. We would very much like to have a greater laboratory presence. But starting a business involves a bit of housekeeping, block and tackle work that Irene just spoke about that we’ve really been tending to. The fundraising process is also very intense. Before we can do experiments, we need money to support those studies. And so we’ve been investing an awful lot of time in approaching potential investors and writing research grants that go to places like the National Cancer Institute to try and obtain the funding that we need.
KWHS: What advice would you give to young people who might be interested in the field of nanotech?
Susantio: If they are interested, go and try. See what kind of things interest them, what kinds of applications. Is it oncology or is it energy that speaks to their heart? Just go try. I think here, since I came to the United States, joining Wharton is like a true privilege, being able to try so many things. So I think it’s very important for young people, for high school students, to never fear to try, because only by trying do you know what you like or what you don’t like, which one that has potential, what are the better ways of going after your dream.
Smith: I would add to that in terms of education planning, to focus on the fundamentals. Nanotechnology is a discipline unto itself. But it’s really the confluence of a number of more traditional disciplines. So there’s nothing like a solid background in traditional chemistry, in traditional physics, to prepare you for a field that is so multidisciplinary. Nanotechnology really spans a large number of fields. And you need to be able to speak all of those languages in a very concrete way.
Susantio: I agree with that actually, because a lot of things that we’ve been doing so far people thought that we are just doing science, being in a lab. And the reality is we talk a lot. We have to reach out to people, give presentations, and then just listen. It’s something new — I have personally learned how to derive the message from what people told us. So every day is new learning for us. But definitely for the high school students or people who want to go down this path, don’t limit yourself in nanotechnology or basic science, but go beyond that. Talk to people. Learn from people. The broader your knowledge, the better you can make progress in anything that you want to do in the future.