Just after Dr. Bernardo Cordovez, a native of Quito, Ecuador, obtained his Ph.D. at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., during his postdoctoral work he and his advisor, Dr. David Erickson, came up with a method to capture and hold the tiniest particles for extended study—a breakthrough that has many potential applications, particularly in the field of pharmaceuticals and particle analysis.
When Cordovez and his associate, Dr. Robert Hart, turned their research into a business called Optofluidics in 2010, they came to Philadelphia, where the University City Science Center helped them get off the ground.
They recently received their first purchase orders, after moving from the Port Incubator to commercial space in the Science Center itself. Cordovez was recently named one of Philadelphia’s top 30 Under 30 Entrepreneurs by the Philadelphia Business Journal.
What inspired you to start Optofluidics?
We started the company in the middle of 2010, but it was in a completely dormant state. What kickstarted the company was a Small Business Innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation. We did a lot of business development and planning to meet our grant’s milestones, so we would qualify for additional funding.
We had developed technologies whose core function is to manipulate the smallest of objects in solutions. The motivation behind that is that if you want to move objects that are a millimeter, you can use tweezers. If you’re trying to manipulate a single virus or protein, it gets very difficult; and the smaller you go, the more difficult it gets. This presents a pretty big roadblock for studying single particles.
We decided to commercialize this technology using light photons. Light has energy and you can use this energy to move things around. It’s like a light “tweezer” to keep very small objects in a particular place where you can study them for extended periods of time.
Why did you come to Philadelphia?
We didn’t stay in Ithaca because there’s not a lot of financial activity there, and that’s why we’re in Philadelphia.
We officially moved into the Science Center’s incubator in March 2011. The main thing they helped us with was, in addition to wonderful facilities, they plugged us into the community. By going into the Port Incubator, we were in touch with a network of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
We’re now venture-backed by a fund called BioAdvance—I was connected to them by the Science Center, so they were crucial to our development. We settled with BioAdvance on a small equity purchase, and it was enough to take us through the end of the year.
Where are you now in your commercialization of Optofluidics?
We started out supported just through government grants and contracts. We have delivered on our promise to the government to commercialize. Our first purchase orders are to take our instruments to academic research labs, which is the first step of our commercialization plan.
After we get validation from those labs, we can move toward larger industrial applications, particularly in bio-pharmaceutical quality control. Our first system installation is in about a month and a half.
Do you manufacture the equipment?
We’re mainly in charge of design, and because we use nanotechnology, and the machines to do that are usually made to do computer chips . . . we contract with semiconductor foundries. We do part of the assembly. The chips are designed to guide light instead of electricity—they’re photonic circuits. The power supply is a laser. Avo Photonics in Horsham helps us with part of the design and manufacturing. So we do design, assembly and sales; the components are manufactured elsewhere.
How many people work for Optofluidics?
We have four full-time Ph.D.s, one part-time engineer and one part-time assistant.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting your company started?
There are two main challenges: The first is that the technology is complex. There are many components, and it’s a difficult engineering feat to get it to work.
The other challenge is that we’re a very techno-centric company, and rewiring our operating system to worry about customers is always a challenging transition. It’s about the customer now, and not just about the science.
How did you go from being a researcher to being a CEO of a company?
I’ve taken sales training (the Sandler Training System at the Radnor Business Center), and it’s one of the more useful things I’ve ever taken. . . You can get stuck in the marvel of the experiment and equation, but in the end, if there’s no paying customer, that’s the end of the road. We also have a board of advisors and investors, who are experienced entrepreneurs—they help a great deal.
— by Susan Pena
3711 Market St. Suite 970 Philadelphia, PA 19104