Founders Spotlight: Optimer Biotech

Editor's note:

Student Venture Associate Grace Kim interviewed TRx cohort member and Postdoctoral Student in the lab of Dr. Harmen Bussemaker, Chaitanya Rastogi. He and the research team are building a platform that allows the design of useful molecular reagents by measuring molecular interactions in ultra-high throughput environments.

Grace Kim
June 24, 2020

Grace: Tell us about your team, how did it get started?

Chaitanya: It all started with Dr. Harmen Bussemaker, the PI of our lab, Tomas Rube, a fellow postdoc, and me. Over many informal conversations we realized that we have a unique set of complementary strengths that would make it natural and exciting to start a company together. I always knew I wanted to work somewhere in the startup space after my previous experiences with entrepreneurship when I was consulting for startups in NY.

Grace: Tell us about your focus, what are you building/researching?

Chaitanya: We are building a platform that allows us to design useful molecular reagents by measuring molecular interactions in ultra-high throughput. We test protein sequences and their interactions and translate these into physical properties we really care about. We originally developed our methods to understand protein-DNA interactions underlying gene expression regulation, but in the past year we have started applying them to other types of molecular interactions.

Grace: What is one fun fact about your team?

Chaitanya: All three of us are physicists (two theoretical and one applied)!

Harmen Bussemaker

Grace: Why did you choose to join TRx?

Chaitanya: When we came up with this idea, Beth, our licensing officer, told us about TRx. We thought the classes at the accelerator would give us a better idea about commercializing our product and so, decided to take the class. So far, it’s been a great experience for my team and me. When we started at TRx, we were focused on molecular engineering but TRx has allowed us to collaborate with people uptown with more knowledge on the disease side of things. We’ve been able to develop a more concrete path to market and it gave us the opportunity to expand our platform into further applications like protein-protein interactions - a significantly bigger market.

Grace: What are the biggest challenges you have faced since forming your team/startup?

Chaitanya: I think our biggest challenge was trying to focus ourselves. Our platform is very general and has so many potential applications. It was difficult trying to find our best starting point. Even if we knew, how did we know we’re making the right choice?

Grace: What is the biggest lesson you have learned since joining TRx? What are the next steps for your company/research?

Chaitanya: I think we have two big lessons. Coming from a scientific research background, the kinds of things that are discussed in the classes seemed mundane on the surface level but we’ve realized it had potential to have a significant impact on our research. Things like market research gave us a better understanding about our product and gave us concrete steps on the research side of things. We also learned that having a lot of competitors is not always a bad thing as it teaches us to hone in and really understand what makes our idea stand out.

Next steps: As soon as labs reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, we plan to hire one or more people to run experiments for PoC testing and then go and raise money! We are thinking of targets for what avenue should we go down.

Grace: What type of support/partnership are you currently seeking?

Chaitanya: We need financial support but we would also love to build partnerships with domain experts who have more expertise and knowledge around specific diseases.