MIT Biotechnology Group

Sample6’s Michael Koeris visits MIT Biotech Group

Mike Koeris, cofounder of food diagnostics company Sample6 stopped by to talk with students for the second installment of our speaker series. Previously we hosted biotech journalist Luke Timmerman. Luke has been a tall figure in biotech journalism, writing for Forbes, Xconomy, and now his own venture Timmerman Report. If you missed it, check out our coverage here! To receive information on upcoming events, sign up for our mailing list!

At Sample6, Mike and the team (including MIT Prof Tim Lu) invented a platform for rapid detection of bacterial pathogens – Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli – in food products. The technology relies on infecting the target bacteria with a virus (called bacteriophage) that causes it to emit light: if adding the virus to the food causes it to glow, it’s contaminated with the bacteria.

Through the lens of his experience with Sample6, Mike advised students on all parts of the entrepreneurial process. We reproduced our favorite points here.

Pivoting is a main facet of startup life, but you can’t pivot forever
As with many startups, Sample6 didn’t start as in food diagnostics, nor was it even called Sample6. Mike explained that as grad students, he and Tim initially hatched the idea to use the same bacteriophages as a therapeutic against bacterial infections. The idea won plenty of business plan competitions but they quickly found that regulatory battle to give patients a (bacterial) virus as a therapeutic wasn’t worth the investment. At the time, large pharmaceutical companies also weren’t interested in antimicrobials, and the low chance of exiting through acquisition worried investors.

Looking for different opportunities to use their bacteriophage technology, Mike and Tim brainstormed new applications of their technology, ranking the benefits and challenges of each idea in terms of regulatory, competing technologies, and likelihood of adoption (customer base?) After extensive research, they settled on a new application: disrupting biofilms. Bacteria grow into viscous matrix that can clog plumbing systems and break industrial equipment. Rather than using the bacteriophages as a therapeutic, they could instead kill bacteria that clog piping in oil fields. The idea got the company back off the ground, even securing an investment Chevron, but ultimately they couldn’t convince any oil fields to take the risk of implementing the technology for fear of interrupting operations.

The team faced a hard decision. They had built the technology and secured funding, was it back to the drawing board a second time? Mike and the team went back to their board of advisors with a new idea: food diagnostics. The team understood this was their last shot, as Mike told us, “you can’t pivot forever, then you’re just burning money and you’re dead.”

How easy can you make it?

  • The decision to switch to food diagnostics came from three principles:
    low to no regulatory hurdle
  • technically well understood product
  • product that is “iPhone good”: so awesome that you’ll pay any amount of money for it

The team spent 6 weeks intensely researching where the bacteriophage technology could be applied, amassing a giant spreadsheet with technical risk, timing, regulatory hurdles, market difficulty, and potential value.

A food diagnostics company would likely achieve a much lower value than oil and gas, a sour point on investors, but it was the easiest path to success. Regulation is minimal, and the target bacteria are technically well understood. Mike stressed that in biotech, we think a lot about industrial enzymes of clinical therapeutics, but both are difficult markets. The key was making the path to success as easy as possible.

Get out of the lab and talk people
Mike’s primary advice to students was to get out of the lab and talk to people. As grad students, it’s easy to fall into the trap of perpetual iteration on technology, never quite feeling “ready” to talk to potential customers. On the contrary, Mike stressed that we should be talking to our potential userbase as soon as possible.

In between pivoting from the biofilm disruption to food diagnostics, Mike estimated that the team spent >200 hours talking to potential customers, starting with the Legal Seafoods restaurant down the street from their office. If we want to make an impact in the clinic, Mike insisted it’s imperative that we spend time in hospitals talking to primary care physicians, nurses, and patients.

Don’t stop at just a tool
The idea for Sample6 – and its precursors – was just a bacteriophage engineering tool. Mike said they could have stopped there, licensing the engineering platform to clients to develop their own applications. Mike’s strategy was to be the closest to the customer that pays the most money on a per unit basis.

Go build companies!
Mike pointed out that we’re the ones that cares the most about our own research. The research will surely trapped in the lab if we think anyone else will commercialize. Mike initially pursued a career at Flagship Ventures, but the potential for the phage ideas was always in the back of his mind. Eventually, he had to give a shot full time, or else he felt as if the technology he worked so hard to develop as a grad student would never see the light of day.

If you have more questions for Mike – you can find him on Twitter at @mkoeris!