Ben Doranz can trace all the places he has worked and studied in the last 20 years to within a few blocks of where he started as a lab tech at the Wistar Institute, a world renowned research center for cancer and other diseases in University City, Philadelphia.
He earned his Ph.D in cell and molecular biology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and worked in the school’s tech transfer office for a spell before going to Wharton School for his MBA and graduating in 2001. That’s when he felt like he had what it takes to start his own company, which he pursued at the University City Science Center, the nation’s oldest urban research park.
In the heart of Philly’s meds and eds center, Doranz launched what would become a powerful biotech company focused on drug discovery for treatment of diseases that involve integral membrane proteins. It was research conducted at Penn from 1997 to 2000 that contributed to the founding of Integral Molecular, which provides membrane protein-related products and services, including in the fields of infectious and inflammatory diseases.
Antibodies are used as drugs more and more, and those antibodies are specifically engineered versions of proteins that the human body normally carries. Doranz’s company isolates those antibodies to make sure they are very specific to target a virus or cell, humanized so the body will not try to reject the drug, and has a high affinity to the target, meaning it binds to the target so you only need a small injection and not a huge volume.
How did the Science Center impact your company?
The Port Business incubator really gave us the infrastructure to start the company. We started in 2001 and it has been growing ever since. I don’t think we’d be here without it. When we started we had a small budget of $100,000, which doesn’t go very far in the science world, even with just two people. With that amount of money, even if you didn’t have any salary, you could buy one piece of equipment for the lab. Normally you’d need two or three million just to put infrastructure in place for the first experiment. But for that amount of money we had, the infrastructure the Science Center provided allowed us to operate for six months and grow from two to three to five people.
The other part was the Science Center’s location near Penn and Drexel. In the early stages of the company it was really important because we could walk over and talk to other co-founders, take advantage of shared resources and facilities and in later years, it’s still been a really vital part of who we are. At least half our employees come from Drexel or Penn. That’s a major source of talent. When you’re outside the city and more disconnected from research and universities, that kind of talent just isn’t accessible.
Can you compare and contrast the worlds of scientific research and entrepreneurship?
The commonalities are independence and hard work, which get you ahead in both cases. Those are the things I’ve been focused on. The transition wasn’t as stark as it might seem when you think about science and business. On a day-to-day basis you talk about things in the scientific world, an experiment and if things are working. On the business side, you generally don’t need to challenge that much as you do on the scientific side, but you challenge the outcomes. If this experiment works and if you get the data you’re hoping to get, what does it mean for your business? What kind of product can you develop from that? What kind of impact on the market? How does it change you revenue stream?
You make assumptions in business and in science you challenge assumptions. But in both cases you’re looking at the same information. I didn’t want to do science alone. I wanted to translate it into something meaningful for customers or patients.
What’s a challenge you’ve had to overcome to help your company succeed?
Balancing life with work. I had a grant application due about two weeks after my son was supposed to be born, but he was born a few weeks early. So I had to write the final art of the grant, which was a major funding source for us at that stage, while literally holding my 1-month old son in one arm and typing with the other.
So you had several entries in the Wharton Business Plan competition some 12 years ago, including the winner. How did that impact how you started Integral Molecular?
You can lay out the best possible plans but can’t control the market, competitors or other external factors. That’s a little bit of what happened in our case. We had two very good ideas and good products. The market dictated which ones we’d focus on the most. It turned out one of the products had a number of IP issues we had to deal with and that delayed that product. We basically had to put it aside because it wasn’t fundable until we could resolve the IP issues. The other product we licensed from Penn and got several patents on that, which gave us the basis for priority of what we were going to commercialize. It was about what the market needs, what the competitors and patent landscapes permit, and what you can get funding for.
Anything you learned at Wharton that made you a better entrepreneur?
One of the most important realization was you have to communicate science in a way that everyone understands. An investor would understand it. An employee who just graduated from college can understand it. Even though it might be very complicated and detailed, you need to communicate it clearly.
What resources have you taken advantage of to grow the company?
The state and city have been very supportive, sometimes through the Science Center but also with tax credits. As we’ve grown and become more successful, the state and city have offered more opportunities through Keystone Opportunity and Innovation Zones to hire more people and build more infrastructure. It allowed us a couple years ago to expand to a 10,000 square foot facility with a 10-year lease and build all the labs we needed at the Science Center.
What’s next for Integral Molecular?
One of the things we’re launching is a new antibody development program. Antibodies are the lifeblood of much of biotech and making antibodies against types of programs we develop is actually very challenging. Although these proteins are the focus of many of these diseases that are untreatable, we’re starting a partnership program where we can develop those antibodies and deliver them to our customer and help speed the development of therapies. We work with all of the top-10 pharma companies, many of the large biomed companies and many small ones. We’ve got a pretty diversified customer base. The type of diseases they tackle are cancer, chronic pain, viral diseases, HIV, influenza, and Hepatitis C.
— by Joe Petrucci
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