GEN Interview with Niro Ramachandran, PhD, Chief Business Officer of Akoya Biosciences

Niro Ramachandran, PhD
Niro Ramachandran, PhD
Akoya Biosciences

GEN sat down with Akoya’s Chief Business Officer, Niro Ramachandran, PhD, to learn more about spatial biology, the company’s plans, and why they are heading to the AGBT meeting for the first time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

GEN: Hi Niro. You’ve been in the spatial world for some time. What excites you about spatial biology, in general? And, what brought you to Akoya?

Ramachandran: To answer that, we need to go back and think about how the market exploded when next generation sequencing (NGS) was introduced. There are not a lot of examples like that. If you told somebody in 2005 that NGS would be in the clinic, they would think you were crazy. They would say it’s just too complicated to go to the clinic. Spatial is different. It’s a much more familiar tool. It’s the first time I’ve seen a new capability breakout where the path to the clinic is obvious. To go into the clinic, you must have technologies that have been battle-tested—that people have used. Most of the companies, in fact, all the companies in spatial biology are developing and launching their first-generation platform. Akoya’s platform, which we bought from PerkinElmer, has been around for a decade. Because of that, Akoya has the fastest horse to go into the clinical space.


GEN: Some clinical researchers would argue that spatial is still far away from the clinic, that the technology is not streamlined enough, and that it will be some time before it’s ready.

Ramachandran: Akoya is years ahead of the rest, just because of the time the platform has had to incubate in the marketplace. The platform I’m referring to is the one that used to be called Polaris, which is now rebranded as the PhenoImager HT™. The PhenoImager HT has already been validated in a 2021 study published in the Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, across six sites in North America where pathologists tested it. The instrument is also now in a CLIA certified lab. So, there is momentum building, and it’s only a matter of time—I would say two to three years—before CDX deals are happening and diagnostics are being developed on it.


GEN: Akoya does not typically have a presence at the AGBT meeting. But this year, you’re a sponsor. Does this mean that you’re moving into the world of spatial transcriptomics?

 Ramachandran: Yes. At Spatial Day in late 2021 we revealed a roadmap of product launches throughout 2022. This was then followed by JP Morgan, where we presented our timeline of what to expect and next steps. For example, we are developing RNA chemistry positioning us to be the leaders in the functional spatial biology space with multiomic RNA and protein expression mapping. During AGBT, we’ll showcase this new chemistry, how it works, and so on. It’s worth pointing out that, in the early days of NGS, the big debate focused on the chemistry. No one cared what the instruments looked like. Spatial biology has been fundamentally different. It’s not about the chemistry; there are 50 different ways of measuring RNA in the tissue. The chemistries aren’t that unique. This is the first time where the hardware becomes the difference. The hardware can make magic out of the chemistry, but the chemistry can’t replace the hardware. And this is where speed becomes important. If you have a fast system—a platform that can cycle reagents and take pictures quickly—the researcher can use that to their advantage. They can choose to look at a lot of samples, or more of one sample, or a lot of targets without it taking weeks. Speed offers flexibility, in that sense.


GEN: You know better than most how competitive the spatial world is. Where does Akoya need to work hard, or improve, to remain competitive with the other spatial companies? 

Ramachandran: Akoya is working hard in the spatial transcriptomics space; we are in a development phase where others have been developing those chemistries for some time. But if you think about spatial transcriptomics chemistries that have single-cell resolution, most of those won’t be commercialized until the end of 2022 or 2023. Today there aren’t a lot of commercial platforms out there that can have single-cell transcriptome capabilities. We are moving quickly when it comes to developing chemistry while other companies are building their first instrument, which takes a much longer time. It takes three to four years to build an instrument, but chemistries can take less than a year. Where I lose sleep is on the data side. Because the datasets that come off these instruments are massive—they dwarf NGS in comparison. And there are layers of complexity to the data sets. Solving this problem will require a huge, heavy lift. And, not just from Akoya—the community will need to come together to figure out how to do this. It’s a problem the genomics community has solved before. It has just gotten bigger.


GEN: Can you tell us a bit about what the collaboration with PathAI means for your platform? What does PathAI bring to the table, specifically?

Ramachandran: Everybody’s becoming an AI company here and there. But you have to look under the hood to figure out what each AI company has. I liked two things about PathAI: They recently acquired a lab—the 5th-largest testing lab in the country—where there are about 25 pathologists on staff who are routinely looking at tissue images. But on top of that, they have one of the largest networks of pathologists—hundreds of pathologists who curate and understand information. They’ve built this discovery engine called graph neural network (GNN) and they are getting the computational biologists and pathologists to work together. They bring the data analysis piece to us, using AI to generate signatures that are algorithm-driven. We’ve partnered with them so that they can generate biomarkers using our image data in a way that we never could. We’re excited about layering that sort of analysis on top of our images.


GEN: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Niro. Hopefully, we’ll continue this conversation at AGBT in Florida.