September 15, 2007 (Vol. 27, No. 16)
Interview with David Smoller, Ph.D., New President of Firm’s Research Biotech Unit
David Smoller, Ph.D., recently was promoted to the helm of Sigma-Aldrich’s Research Biotech Business Unit (RBBU), one of four business units within the company. Dr. Smoller joined Sigma-Aldrich as vp, R&D, in 2004 after founding and selling two biotech start-up companies, Genome Systems and ProteoPlex. Dr. Smoller talked to GEN about his biotech experience, the RBBU’s role within the Sigma organization, and the unit’s contributions to the life science industry currently and going forward.
What is the role of the Research Biotech Business Unit in the bioindustry?
The Research Biotech Business Unit’s role is to provide innovative, solutions-oriented products to our life science customers. We have, over the last decade, built the beginnings of a strong product pipeline. This program includes both internal R&D as well as licensing and acquisition capabilities. We have employed over 150 R&D scientists in our business unit, with capabilities in genomics, proteomics, cell biology, bioinformatics, and more.
In 2001 we built the business development team to drive the acquisition of new technologies. This endeavor along with our internal R&D talent and strategic marketing organization greatly expanded our ability to successfully identify and acquire new technologies.
We have leveraged our business development and marketing teams in partnership with our R&D team to identify, license, and develop innovative technologies from the great science that is occurring in academic institutions and emerging biotech companies. These technologies included whole genome amplification technology from Rubicon Genomics(www.rubicongenomics.com), methylation-analysis technologies from Epigentek(www.epigentek.com), and gene-silencing technologies and RNAi from Benitec(www.benitec.com), Oxford Biomedical(www.oxfordbiomed.com), The RNAi Consortium at the Broad Institute, and our acquisition of Proligo.
An example of internal development is our ProteoPrep depletion technology. The products derived from this technology allow one to deplete highly abundant proteins in blood, thus enabling the researcher to reveal and analyze the rare and most relevant proteins in their sample.
How does the Research Biotech Business Unit complement the activities carried out by the other business units (Research Essentials, Research Specialties, and Sigma-Aldrich Fine Chemicals)?
The life science community is one of over one million researchers. Sigma has touched many, if not all, of these scientists through the diversity of our products. Sigma’s leadership in this arena is due to its experienced workforce and infrastructure.
Thus the key word is partnership. Each business unit has synergistic capabilities and expertise. We each work together in partnership to ensure the success of the company and our customers.
More importantly for the customer, the diversity of products and single company mindset allow for a complete solution. From specialty chemicals to innovative kits, the customer has only one place to look to find what he or she needs.
How do you think your experience in founding and selling two biotech companies will help you as president of the Research Biotech Business Unit?
To be successful in the life science market, I believe one must have an entrepreneurial spirit. As the founder of a start-up or the head of a large corporate organization, one must wear multiple hats—part scientist, part businessman, part negotiator, and part lawyer.
As in any career with a lot of responsibility, so also come complexity, diverse problems, and ever-changing environments. The process of founding, building, and selling companies has given me a set of skills that would be hard to reproduce in other career environments. These acquired skill sets are important to succeed in this complex life science market.
Which areas of life science research do you believe will grow the quickest over the next decade, and how will the Research Biotech Business Unit address these expanding opportunities?
The genome has been sequenced—the genes are known, but the next step is dissecting the function of these genes and more importantly how they interact with each other in pathways in the cell. Our business unit has invested heavily in this area of research. For example, we have developed and acquired products and technologies based on RNA interference, an area that is growing rapidly.
At the same time, this technology has driven the industry to develop products to measure this effect not only at the level of the transcript and protein but also at the pathway and phenotypic level. Thus, technologies to visualize the living cell itself as well as what is going on within a living cell will be needed to determine the true function of the genome.
Sigma has invested in developing both gene-expression and protein-expression reagents.
We have also built a cell biology R&D group. With this group and through our partnership with Panomics and two researchers, Klaus Hahn and David Lawrence at the University of North Carolina, we have embarked on developing technologies that will not only measure but will also visualize the location within living cells active proteins.
Innovation such as this will help our customers understand the complexity of the proteome in a living cell.
Sigma has been a life science research supplier for more than half a century. Over the past few years, company officials have said that they are increasing their commitment to advancing life sciences globally. How is the company doing this?
Sigma’s products are available worldwide; we operate in 36 countries. We not only have sales and distribution centers in many countries but we have R&D centers around the world. We have invested in emerging life science efforts in Asia Pacific and Latin America. These include sites in Bangalore (India) as well as Shanghai. At the same time we have invested not only in providing our products globally but also in our scientific expertise. Our R&D scientists travel around the world providing expertise, application data, and simply sharing ideas with other scientists.