Wharton Business Plan Winners Brian Smith and Irene Susantio: The Small Wonders of Nanotechnology

Tiny is SO in these days. Nanotechnology, technology that is small enough to fit inside a computer chip, is a field that is attracting lots of young technologists. Wharton MBA graduates Brian Smith and Irene Susantio -- otherwise known as Team Solixia -- are putting tiny into action in health care. Their “Hot Dot” cancer treatment is the size of a small protein fragment yet 20 times more powerful in diagnosing and treating cancer than current methods. Brian and Irene have big plans for their business, which received a grant from the National Cancer Institute in August, 2010, as they spread the word about the small wonders of nanotechnology.Read More

by Lew Goettner

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.

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3 comments on “Wharton Business Plan Winners Brian Smith and Irene Susantio: The Small Wonders of Nanotechnology

  1. Even as my eyes land upon the subheading of this article, my mind is flooded with memories that leave me close to tears. Cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths in the world, leaving few unscathed, whether they be victims or those closest to them. Meanwhile, I can’t help but admire the ingenuity of the two Wharton graduates, as they add their expertise in nanotechnology to treating the disease. The Hot Dot, an apt play on words, would no doubt prove revolutionary in their current target market. It is an impressive feat to develop a particle capable of such wonders, more so when it is invisible to the naked eye. Such an advancement opens the barrier to the next steps in finding a cure.

    Already, the product has massively improved its target on ovarian and breast cancer, acting as both a treatment and a way to provide accurate diagnosis. However, even as I listen to the interview by KWHS, my thoughts begin to stray from its accomplishments to its future potential. After such development in the medical field, I believe that Solixia could also be able to expand into numerous other branches of cancer, including lung, stomach, leukemia, and kidney, which may benefit from such advancement.

    A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, my mother received a call from my grandmother in the dead of night. However, the usually vivid voice of my grandmother was not the same when the phone was handed to me, replaced with a mournful whisper as she relayed the news: my great-grandmother had been hospitalized after a diagnosis of Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. There was nothing the doctors could do, even with all the treatment they could provide. The diagnosis came way too late, with little to no warning. In the next year with which she held onto her life, it was as if we were on the sidelines, forced to watch as a loved one’s bodily condition degraded with a deathlike pallor.
    From what I heard later from my parents, I realized that the disease was not as sudden as I first believed. Partly from her old age and due to other undisclosed actions in the past, slow decay over the many years had amassed into cancer. She had already surpassed the first two stages before the doctors finally realized what was occuring.

    Other than breast and ovarian cancer, there are many other types of cancers that present dangerous and fatal outcomes as well. According to the National Library of Medicine, lung and bronchus cancers are the most common cancers, claiming thousands of lives every year. In my great-grandmother’s case, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, but is “the third leading cause of cancer death in the US” (NCI). It has the lowest survivability rate since it is difficult to detect before it is too late. In 2020, the amount of deaths from cancer rose higher than 600,000, and the number has only increased (CDC). Nearly half of these diagnoses are too late, making treatment more futile in the already dangerous circumstances. These statistics only prove that there are many other regions for the Hot Dot to expand upon, potentially saving even more lives in the mix.

    In addition, inaccurate diagnosis is yet another issue in many other types of cancer. Tests like HER2 have been proven to misclassify tumors, supplying treatments unfit for the cancer and increasing health-care costs. As a study found, the total economic societal loss amounts to nearly a billion dollars (NIH). It has become clear that improvements in testing accuracy are necessary.

    A product such as the Hot Dot could be the solution to any erroneous results that may lead to misclassification. With the potential to extend into other types of cancer, the particle would be able to make treatment more affordable and efficient. Most cancers are historically difficult to treat (liver, pancreas, brain) due to its position in the body. The liver is covered by the right rib cage and is surrounded by other organs, making it hard to detect in the first place, much less treat it when it is large. Cancer in the pancreas is nearly invisible as it is surrounded by the intestines and the stomach. The brain is connected to the spinal cord and is also dangerous to treat due to its important functions. This anti-cancer treatment could be a huge step in detecting and treating these cancers as a nanoparticle could reach and treat parts of the body that drugs otherwise could not reach.

    Cancer, in any form, is deadly. Once in its grasp, not even the smartest or the strongest can save themselves. It becomes a contest of will, and those closest to them have to watch the fight against a landslide. I acclaim the creators of the Hot Dot with such a development. It has and will save many lives within the sectors of breast and ovarian cancer. However, when such a cure could be applicable to a type of cancer, then the development could lead to a massive advancement in other sectors as well. If Solixia were to expand its target market to other cancers, such revolutionary technology would change the landscape for cancer treatment for all. I have witnessed cancer rip a loved one from our household. I am sure that many other families have felt the same emotions I felt when they were seated in front of an empty seat at the dinner table. Few are lucky and none are left unscathed. My great-grandmother is one of millions who might have been saved by the Hot Dot. I only hope that with our ever-increasing knowledge of technology, what we had to face will not repeat in the future, to countless other lives and families.

    • Marvin S., I am deeply sorry for your loss and the pain you experienced when your great-grandmother passed away from pancreatic cancer. At the age of 6, in September 2013, around a week after my birthday, I lost my father after his heroic fight against the deadly disease. It was heart-wrenching to witness my father trade suffering for surrender to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a type of cancer that grows in the blood and bone marrow. I remember the pain I felt as my mom told me he had passed, but I would like to think that he is now in a better place. Not being able to fathom the consequences of losing a parent, I was forlorn as I couldn’t imagine our perfect family of four suddenly reduced to three. I was too young to even participate in his last rites and my mom went alone to his cremation. As I reflect on those difficult times, I recognize that the loss of a parent at such a young age shaped my perspective and ignited a strong desire within me to make a positive impact in the fight against cancer.
      After the death of my father, I embarked upon a quest to become a doctor, so that I might fight against cancer as well. As I reached high school, I realized that my interests were sparked primarily by finance and engineering, so I have pivoted towards the pursuit of entrepreneurship and I hope to apply my engineering and STEM skills to the creation of products that benefit society. My mom taught me at a young age to make a positive impact on society in a way that aligns with my strengths and fuels my passions.
      Cancer brings pain and uncertainty, affecting our families and countless others. Acute Myeloid Leukemia is such a rare form of cancer that it affects only one percent of all cancer patients. AML often goes unnoticed until it reaches an advanced stage. Due to its rarity, most people learn of AML’s existence through the diagnosis of loved ones or friends. My father’s cancer diagnosis surprised us in a most extraordinary way– it was part of a routine screening for strep throat. These circumstances surrounding my father’s diagnosis highlight the urgent need for improved cancer detection methods and the potential impact that innovative technologies like Solixia’s Hot Dot can have in the field. Expanding the capabilities of Solixia’s Hot Dot technology to encompass a broader range of cancers, including pancreatic cancer or Leukemia, has the potential to provide hope and improved outcomes for patients like your great-grandmother and my father in the future.
      Regarding the issue of inaccurate diagnosis, I dove deep into research to find a statistic on this topic. An article in the National Library of Medicine explained a study where they researched the rate of inaccurate diagnosis of cancer. The results stated the mean rate of inaccurate diagnosis was 9.7%. This number is huge and highlights that there is a big issue in the inaccurate diagnosis of cancer which leads to it being found too late. I also stand corrected on the current application of nanobots in cancer detection as I believed that they were already applied in cancer diagnosis. According to the United States National Cancer Institute, they have not been employed specifically for cancer diagnosis; however, their potential in other areas such as at-home pregnancy tests indicates the promising application of nanotechnology in the medical field–a trend which Hot Dots can hop on. The use of nanobots for cancer detection may indeed enhance accuracy and potentially lower healthcare costs, particularly if nanobot technology can be incorporated into convenient at-home systems. These bots are no bigger than a single cell (usually smaller), which allows them to reach and treat parts of the body that surgeons could not previously access.
      I concur with your suggestion that the creators of the Hot Dot, Team Solixia, should consider expanding their research to other kinds of cancer. However, I believe this may be accomplished by sharing Solixia’s findings and seeking sponsors or partnerships to amplify the impact of their revolutionary technology. According to “The Power of Partnerships: How to maximise the impact of research for development” by the Institute of Development Studies, research-based partnerships can help a company like Solixa focus on research while their partner focuses on policy and the company’s framework. I also agree that this topic would be revolutionary in its current target market, and Solixia should capitalize on that. Along with partnerships and sponsorships, collaboration with other organizations and researchers might help accelerate the development and implementation of the Hot Dot, enabling it to reach a wider patient base and make a critical difference in cancer treatment and more importantly, in my eyes, its detection. As you mentioned, “Cancer, in any form, is deadly. Once in its grasp, not even the smartest or the strongest can save themselves.” Treatment through nanotechnology may be years ahead of us but diagnosis is one way to ensure we don’t watch our loved ones “fight against the landslide,” as you wrote.
      Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience. It is through discussion and collective effort that we strive to improve cancer detection, treatment, and ultimately, the lives of those affected by this debilitating disease. I could not agree with you more when you stated, “Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, leaving few unscathed, whether they be victims or those closest to them.” Cancer affected not only my dad but everyone around him as well. Your comments made me feel connected and reassured me that I am not alone in my experiences. I extend my warm regards to you from New Jersey.

  2. Thank you both for sharing your very personal experiences with cancer. Sounds like you are developing both the IQ and the EQ to truly make a difference.

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