The MATTER Health Podcast

Tales from the Trenches: Dr. Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University

June 22, 2022 Season 2 Episode 6
The MATTER Health Podcast
Tales from the Trenches: Dr. Chad Mirkin, Northwestern University
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Chad Mirkin is a world-renowned chemist who has taken an entrepreneurial approach to his nanotechnology research. He is the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and the George B. Rathmann professor of chemistry. He is also a professor of chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering and medicine at Northwestern University

Dr. Mirkin is known for the invention of the spherical nucleic acid and its development in biodetection and therapeutic schemes, which was named by National Geographic as one of the top 100 scientific discoveries that changed the world, among other innovations. He has published over 830 manuscripts and has over 1,200 patents and patent applications, which lends him a unique perspective on healthcare product development. 

In addition to his academic and research work, Dr. Mirkin has been involved in shaping scientific policy. In 2009, he was appointed to President Barack Obama's President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and served until 2017, allowing his expertise to be impactful globally. 

On June 21, Dr. Mirkin joined MATTER and Jeff Aronin from Paragon Biosciences to discuss his dynamic career, lessons in nanotechnology and what’s next for his research at Northwestern.

This Tales from the Trenches™ is produced in partnership with Paragon Biosciences.

Steven Collens:
Hello, everyone. Welcome to Tales from the Trenches. Thank you for coming to those of you in person in the room this first time in 28 months, that we've seen you here for Tales from the Trenches, we're very excited. So I'm Steven Collens. I'm the CEO of MATTER. Our mission is to accelerate the pace of change of healthcare. We do three things in service of our mission. First is we incubate startup companies. We launched seven years ago. We've worked with more than 700 companies. They range from very early to growth stage startups. Collectively they've raised more than $2 billion to fuel their growth. Second is we work with large organizations, health systems, insurance companies, life sciences companies. Primarily we help them innovate better. We help them find value in emerging technologies. We also have insights capabilities. We have training capabilities to support them. And third we're a nexus for people who are passionate about healthcare innovation and healthcare transformation.

Steven Collens:
We love doing events. We love doing events like this. We used to do lots of these in person. We're going to do more in person in the future, but we've kept doing lots of things online. And our signature series is this one, Tales from the Trenches, where we interview particularly interesting entrepreneurs who have built and are building companies that have the potential to truly transform health and healthcare. So we produced this series with Paragon Biosciences, which is one of the most important life sciences business builders in the country, if not the world. They currently have six companies in their portfolio. They range from cell therapies to biology engineering, to artificial intelligence. They're located here in Chicago, their founder and chairman and CEO is Jeff Aronin. Thank you for joining us. Who also happens to be a founder and the chair of the MATTER board of directors.

Steven Collens:
Jeff's got more than 30 years of experience in the industry. He started in big pharma and then moved on to building his own companies. And Jeff will lead the conversation today with our guest, Dr. Chad Mirkin. So Dr. Mirkin in 2010, he was the most cited chemist and the most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. He's received honors, including the American Institute of Chemist Gold Medal, the Linus Pauling Award and the Perkin Medal. He is the George Rathmann Professor of Chemistry and the Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Material Science, and Engineering and Medicine at Northwestern University. He's the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, the Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self Assembly. His work spans the disciplines of chemistry, biomedical engineering, and nanotechnology. One of his innovations dip-pen nanolithography was recognized by National Geographic as one of the hundred scientific discoveries that has changed the world.

Steven Collens:
There are many brilliant scientists who spend their careers, making iterative discoveries and hoping their work will someday benefit humanity. Dr. Mirkin is not that kind of a scientist. In addition to his research prowess, he's asked with serial entrepreneur. He's the founder of seven companies, some of which are now public. He is in a rare group of scientists who can move a product from, or discovery from the lab to commercialized product and ultimately serving humanity. And many of his innovations are doing just that today. So Dr. Mirkin, thank you so much for joining us. Looking forward to hearing more about your research and your journey. Thank you all again for joining us. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Jeff Aronin:
Thank you, Steven. And thank you Chad, for being here today. Thank you all for coming as well. I'm looking forward to a really engaging conversation. I mean, you are so unique, but I think the direction of your journey is one that we're going to see a lot more of, which is founder scientists who are beginning companies. And one of my thesis is that, and I'm living it, I'm seeing it, is scientists coming further in the university setting and the bridge to get to commercialization is becoming shorter and more clear. So more founder scientists are becoming a, we're starting to see that more often. I'd love to get there, but I'd love to start with your incredible academic scientific background. You grew up in rural Pennsylvania, not a high school that was known for its chemistry or science or mathematics programs. How did you kind of find that love for science and move your way into this area?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
It's funny, you said academic prowess. I consider myself having gone to one of the worst high schools in America. And I shouldn't say that because there are a lot of great people there, but we were in rural Pennsylvania and I don't think I took a book home, my entire high school. Which is a very different experience than my kids that went to New Career had, their school is as sophisticated as a college I went to. But I did have parents that were highly educated, very motivated, very academically directed and kept us engaged and challenged every step of the way. And I give them a lot of credit, both my parents and also my family, a very competitive family and kind of used that to drive me to where I am today.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. And where was it that you really got your first interest in science and you began to pursue that path?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well, it's kind of funny. So I had a father who was a UC, a trained undergrad, a Stanford Law trained lawyer, then became a judge later in life. To this day, and I work with a lot of smart people. I think the smartest guy I've ever met and none of us wanted to compete with him. So take that out of the entire sphere of a possibility. I had three older brothers that went to college before me and they were going the science route. One went as a geologist. One became a biologist, then spine surgeon, one became a physicist. And for me, that left chemistry.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So I always say, I kind of happened onto this path. Again, I was steered in the right direction by my mother who always was challenging in saying go try new things. I thought I would go and be a doctor. I went to Dickinson College and enrolled in the premed program. Went through that. Of course not really checking what it was like to be a doctor. Decided my junior year to go do a stint in medicine and said, there's no way I would like to do this. This is awful. I need to, not that there's anything wrong with that. I mean, a lot of great doctors, my brother's a doctor, just not for me and decided I better reevaluate and then decided to go do a research experience for undergrad program at Penn State.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And there I met a professor, which is almost always the case that people you run into. You know, I call them collisions and connections, collisions are important, but you got to know when you've made a good one and what connection to make. And in that case, that guy really inspired me to think about a career in chemistry. And I then kind of enrolled in graduate school, on a whim, which is the wrong way to go to graduate school. And I was hooked. I spent a year doing it and realized I really, really like it. I love discovery and never really looked back.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. And then you took, you went into the academic route, you're teaching graduate school, but I also remembered even a few years back with all your success. You always kept teaching freshman chemistry.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
That's correct. I mean, when I came to Northwestern... Well, first I went to MIT, spent two years there and then came to Northwestern and have been there my entire career. And I've taught freshman chemistry every year I've been there. In fact, this was the last year. I'll take one year off next year, the first and 31 years. But I've always liked it. I mean, I've loved it. I always thought, I love the fact that, first of all, I love being around students. I think it's very different from normal work. People aren't there long enough to become really cynical, disillusioned with what they're doing. They're excited. They want to change the world. Some of them are in the audience and they come with an incredible attitude, by senior year maybe not so much. But freshman year, for sure. And it's exciting to be with kids like that want to learn and want to do things that are going to change the world.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And I've always really enjoyed that experience. Northwesterns like the fact that I will engage with the undergrads and spend a lot of time, because it does take a lot of work. I mean, it's anybody that's gone through freshman chemistry at Northwestern knows it's not only just a course, but it's a show. You've got a huge audience and you've got to come prepared because the audience is pretty smart and they'll call you out if you're not prepared. So I learned that in the early years of my training to be a professor at Northwestern and in freshman chemistry. And it's been a lot of fun.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. So you're you're teaching, but you were also doing your lab was focused on certain areas of discovery that were new and novel. And you were recognized for this, you've worked with, you've been acknowledged by many publications, but also you were on the president, I think President Obama's council?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah. Well I was the right place at the right time and let's go back to this collisions and connections issue. You got to remember I started at Northwestern in 1991, the modern age of nanotechnology didn't exist then. There were instruments called scanning probe microscopes that were just coming online. You know, I was taught in my rural school in Pennsylvania, can't see atoms. Well, that's not true. And there were tools that allowed you to not only see atoms, but actually move them around and make things out of atoms, scanning tunnel microscopes, and atomic force microscopes. And so, right when I started at Northwestern, these tools are becoming commercial. Originally they start out as somebody's academic pursuit, but they become commercial tools. And so I said, I'm going to go learn how to use one of these. And that became a part of our early research.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And then pretty soon I realized that, Hey, there's a massive wave coming down the pike, or a train coming down the pike that is really going to change things. And that's nanotechnology. This idea that if you can learn to see things on this scale and build things on this scale, you can begin to discover all sorts of structures and materials that have new properties that can lead to new technologies. And so if you kind of connect the dots, seizing opportunity and saying, Hey, I want to be a part of that from the scientific side of things. I'd also like to be a part of figuring out how I take those scientific discoveries and translate them into technologies that can impact the world. That was kind of my mindset in going through this. And if you keep connecting the dots, in early days we made some early discoveries that looked like they might impact.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
For example, molecular diagnostics. We discovered nano materials that could be very powerful as probes in bio detection schemes. And led to a company, our first company called Nanosphere, that I learned the whole process from employee number one to how you build a company, how you take it public, and then how other people can drive it into the ground. It's very important lesson too.

Jeff Aronin:
Yeah.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
But you know, it was an incredible education. And I did that just as a bull in China shop, I started going to our tech transfer office asking can you help me here? Who within the university can help me learn how to do this properly? Went over to Kellogg. I figured, Hey, we've got a great business school. I'd never been over there. Started knocking on doors, asking, you know I have this idea for developing a company based upon this technology. I need somebody to help me write a business plan. I need somebody to really vet this. Run into a guy named Barry Merkin, called him cousin Barry, spelled his name differently, but we became good friends. He taught the entrepreneurs course over there and he said, look, he goes, we develop plans for people all the time.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
I said, well, what do you mean we? He said, my students do. And I said, can you take this idea and see if you can get them to write a business plan on it. He said, I can't tell them to do that, but I can offer it to the class. And they vote with their feet. Everybody in the class wanted to work on it, because it was new, nanotechnology. They hadn't seen it before they were working on other types of ideas. And they were all hypothetical business plans. This was a chance to write a business plan about a real company and something that was going to be executed upon. And that was the story of the start of Nanosphere.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. And you mentioned that you were able to identify new science, was based on structure and then make that connection between the commercial application. That's unique for an academic researcher.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah. It's kind of, well, it's making the connections, right?

Jeff Aronin:
Yeah.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So when we decided to build the world's first federally funded institute for nanotechnology at Northwestern, I decided that it wasn't good enough just to nanoscience, which is what a lot of people were doing. That's what scientists tend to focus on. Just the science, part I'm done. I've made my discovery, let somebody else figure out how to translate it. My view was that if we wanted to get big and great at Northwestern, we had to learn how to do both parts. So let's take discoveries, filter through which ones look good, and then figure out how we translate them into the development of technologies that can impact people. And so that was just kind of ingrained in the way I was thinking about developing nanoscience at Northwestern. And it was ingrained in the way I thought about my own discoveries as well.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So everything we do is always grounded in why are things the way they are? That's the science part. Why would I take any material and miniaturize it to the nanometer length scale, is it different? That's a science pursuit. Once you figure that out, though, then you can ask, can I do anything of value with that? Can I use that understanding to develop technology that will change fields? And so that was the part that I think you're alluding to, that was filled in. And I began to build teams of researchers that thought on both sides, and that just made that part of their DNA. And certainly the way I woke up every day and thought about things. And pretty soon we were patenting and building intellectual property bases. That became the basis for either companies or things that we could directly license to companies, existing companies.

Jeff Aronin:
Well, I think this is really important because as you think about building companies and you think about advancing science, areas that we're both involved in, it's very unique for a research scientist to, and I think he's becoming more common, but it's an important connection. I can go back as far as very recently, great academic universities, it was dirty to be talking about commercialization. Pure science was white papers and making that connection was often considered, oh, you the commercial guys, but you were able to bring this to your lab. What do you think, and find people like this, what do you think that connect, what do you think allowed you to do that? Why do you think you were unique in doing this?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
You're hitting on a really important point because when I first started in Northwestern in '91, I would say, you said dirty. I would say dancing with a devil. If you said you were doing this as your main pursuit, you're not a real academic, you were dancing with a devil. We don't do that here. And it was viewed as a real negative. And then there was a transition, people began to see the impact that some of these discovers, not just mine, but other people are around. I had a friend who started the company, Illumina, 90% of all the sequencing done in the world is done by Illumina. It's a major, major company now. Bob Langer and I, we were just talking to the green room about Moderna, guy at MIT making early discoveries, and now impacting the world in a significant way.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
The more examples of those, the more palatable and I would even say people began to admire it. So I said I went from dancing with the devil to getting medals for it, which is kind of an interesting transition, right? Where they'll honor you for doing these types of things. I think it's a good cultural change. And I always tell people that you don't have to do what I do. You just have to do one of these things well, to make a big contribution. But what I also tell people is, at least at Northwestern, we start with science. Everything is grounded, because I say, if you choose to do technology, pure technology, the litmus test of whether or not you succeed or not is very simple. Are you the best in the world?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Right? Nobody wants the second best diagnostic tool. Nobody wants the second best therapeutic. They want the best therapeutic. Right? And that's changing all the time. If you, as a scientist, discover something, this is why I think universities are so geared towards us. Something that really changes the way we think about things, design rules under and understanding of fundamental principles, those last forever. And they become part of what you do forever. There's value in both. But I tell every student, I said, be very careful when you latch on and say, I just want to develop technology because the bar is high. And it's very clear whether you've succeeded or not. And there are many ways to succeed if you're doing fundamental science and kind of contributing to our greater understanding of the world.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. The other thing you mentioned is a curiosity, you're very interested in, when you got into chemistry, advancing things, talk... What I've noticed is all great scientists, all great researchers, all great business people have an endless curiosity to make things better. Have you thought about that in your business, in your science career?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah, certainly to make things better and understand how things work. I wake up every morning, I think I'm never bored. There's always something else to do, something else to learn. And in the course of that, learning, as I said, that leads to understanding that can translate into technology. And I think it's a critical way for me to operate personally. It's a critical way to train young people, to pursue their endeavors. And if you're constantly learning and constantly wanting to learn and understand good things are going to follow regardless of the profession you're in, that goes beyond science.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. Now let's talk about some of the companies that you began with your science. So the first one you mentioned a little bit about, and that came out of you knew it was science that could, that had an application.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well kind of, I mean, that was, there was a bit of an accident with that. So there's a very famous paper. It's probably the most famous one that's ever come out of our lab. And I was trying to think about chemistry in a new way. And the question was, could you learn how to use instead of atoms and electron based bonds to make molecules, could you take these tiny particles that people are referring to called nanoparticles, think of them as atoms. And could you program connectivity and build matter from the bottom up, making the particles recognize one another in assemble into preconceived architectures that you'd like? And the idea was, well, let's use DNA. DNA as a polymer. You can synthesize in the lab in the course of an afternoon, let's learn how to interface it with these materials it's never been interfaced with before and ask the question, can we do that?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So a new form of chemistry. And we published that in Nature magazine, it made a huge splash. But along the way, we worked with gold particles that were modified with DNA, that designed to recognize one another and come together. And when they did, there was this fantastic optical change, color change, gold nanoparticles, great example of what I said with respect to nanotechnology, everything when miniaturized is different, gold is no longer gold when it's made 10 nanometer in size. It can be any color of the spectrum depending upon size and shape. And these were red particles. When they recognized one another and came together with DNA triggering that event, they went to Northwestern purple. It was fantastic. It was fate. And it was incredible.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
It was just stunning to see. And it was about 11 o'clock at night, back then my wife reminds me, we work every single day and late in the night, the thing about a professor's pursuit is you never really know how much you have to do to succeed. So you just work like a dog nonstop, at least the first seven years of your career. And then you're infected with it. So you work for the rest of your life that way. But at 11 o'clock at night, this kid comes down into my office, Bobby Music, and he says, Chad, you got to see, this is amazing. I did this experiment you said to do, and I see this incredible color change. And he shows it to me. I said, wow, that's wild. And he goes, but this is really cool. He goes watch as I put it in an oven and it turns red again. And I put it back on the benchtop and it turns Northwestern purple again.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And what we were watching with our naked eye was the DNA what's called hybridization process, double helix forming, two strands coming together to bring the particles together. And so the color was amplifying that recognition event. And we both immediately said, that's a new way of detecting DNA. And so then we began to ask the question, is it a good way of detecting DNA? How sensitive it is it? How can it be made more sensitive? And we began the pursuit of developing technology based upon that observation. And that has continued today. I mean, there are diagnostic tools based upon that Nanosphere developed a tool called the Verigene System, which was, and the company was then sold to Luminex, which was sold to DiaSorin. And that's the backbone of the Luminex detection system and used for detecting anything ranging from COVID to a wide variety of different infectious diseases, genetic diseases, and a variety of other things.

Jeff Aronin:
Oh, interesting. So you've now watched this evolve as it's been applied in different ways?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah. I mean, it keeps going, we were talking about the business life cycle that you're involved with can stop, or it can just continue without you. And the technology keeps refining and refining with different groups of people contributing to it. But the core technology is the same.

Jeff Aronin:
Right? So your model has been, you develop the science, you partner on the business side and you then go back to more of the pure science.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
The other way of saying that is I keep my day job.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah. So we develop it, we make the observation of something that could be commercially useful. And then we begin to build teams to build plans around it, to monetize it and to grow the effort to commercialize it. And we put those in place and raise money around that. And those then become independent entities. And pretty soon I'm on the side, and we just do that over and over and over again. And many of the early employees or people that were in the lab that are excited about becoming part of a startup. And they, I think have a really exciting experience, learn a lot. And some of them turn into some pretty big deals.

Jeff Aronin:
That's very exciting. Now you mentioned that the negative is sometimes you watch other people not execute well, and then you have some that are executed on very well. Is there a learning that you have as a founder scientist, the ones that you partner that work versus, the ones you partner that don't, is there some things you apply or going to apply in the future?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah. I mean, look, a lot of it's a judgment call and you learn more about people in their skill set what's required, the more you do. I mean, experience, I think is really, really important in this game. You can win with really green people, because they're really eager and driven, but you have to make sure you monitor and curb and avoid catastrophic decisions. The negative of my model from a pure business standpoint is that I let go of a lot of it early on. And that's assuming that I bring value to it. But from a personal standpoint, when you look at this, when it's done in your lab, I have 100% control over what we do. We have lots of people contributing, but you know, if I say, we're going to do this, we're going to do it. We're not going to do it. We're not going to do it.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
As you get more people involved with companies, more investors, more cooks around the table, there's less control over that. And that can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. So you really have to be careful to make sure that one, you engage in relationships where people are really knowledgeable on the technology side of things, as well as the business side of things. And where you're somewhat aligned in terms of how you see the whole thing evolving, because it pretty much gets out of your control. Certainly late stages of even a private company, my experience has been. And certainly when you make the transition to the public markets.

Jeff Aronin:
Right, right. Now, as you think about, because there's certainly entrepreneurs in the room here today and there's quite a few scientists. As you think about that transition, would you, you know you're learning, hold onto it longer. Would you not go public longer? What are the models where you think, or is it situational?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
I think so much of it depends upon the specific circumstance. I think if your company is making money and you can stay private and you haven't succeeded control to an outside entity, then keep it private as long as possible. Most of the companies that we're developing are trying to take raw technology to open up big areas that require a lot of money, and a lot of time to go from point a to point B to point C to point D, and point D is Nirvana. And so you have to look at what are my opportunities and what are the costs associated with doing that? What is the cost to take more money? How much is that going to tilt my ability to navigate from that point forward?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
As a person who takes these companies and then kind of moves further away from the company, the deeper we get into it. I love the day when we go public, because I always say that's the day where everybody's growing in the same direction, because all stock is the same. There's no such thing as preferred stock in the public, at least in the public companies I've been involved with. And then you truly have, I think, a collective view of everybody's real opinion, as opposed to people. Well, because if you have a lot of money to put into a company, the blips don't bother you. If you're betting on great technology, the blips can be good.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And get a bigger piece of the company. And you get to the end game that you all thought was good, which is the big hockey stick. And you're a really savvy and super, super smart investor, but that comes at the expense of the folks that are trying to build the company. So there's a, it's really a judgment call. And I don't think there's any perfect answer for all entities. You have to really look at the opportunities and assess risk and reward.

Jeff Aronin:
Great. And one of the questions from the audience is as you build these companies coming out of the academic side, how have you found your investment partners?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Most of them pretty good. It's like any relationship. I mean, most of the time it's good. And sometimes it's prickly. It's usually prickly when there downturns, right. Everybody gets really, really concerned, but I found the partners to be very supportive. I think to me, the biggest surprise was, because there are big dollar values involved is just, some of the real pure motivations of a lot of the investors. The fact that they're doing it to make money, but they're also doing it because they truly believe that this type of investment can change the world in significant ways. And I'd say in every company that's been the case, we've had a good core of investors that have really gone into it for the right reasons, in addition to making money.

Jeff Aronin:
And at this point you, it's a lot easier to raise capital. There's a lot of capital out there. Today's market's getting more challenging certainly, but as a somebody that's done it multiple times, how is it you found your early investment partners?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Again, very good, in the early-

Jeff Aronin:
Found them. How did you go about-

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Oh, I see. I see. I see. Okay. Really, I thought you were really beating on that point. Do you know something I don't know. Bull in China shop in the first one. Right. So with Nanosphere, I just started knocking up doors and asking Barry who are the contacts, ran into Steve Rosen. And one of the really great people was Ann Lurie, who again, wanted to invest to make money, but two to change the world, she thought it would impact the way we track and treat cancer, which was very important to her. And she then connected me with a lot of her folks and that helped kind of grease the skids to get that company off the ground. As we began to develop a bigger and bigger presence and reputation we began to bring in some pretty big groups people like Bain capital, Brookside, a lot of the blue chip investment funds. But I can tell you, it wasn't easy early on.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
I mean, if you take money from people that have a good heart, but aren't known in that particular business, it sometimes actually raises the bar for you to get money down the road. And you have to deal with that. You know, we took one company public, we never took a penny from venture capital. So it was all very wealthy and highly placed individuals. And even my lawyer at the time said that's, I don't know if that's ever been done in biotech. I'm sure it has, but it's at the point is, it's a rarity, but it was really hard to make the transition to the public markets because people go wait a second. Where are all the blue chip investors, the funds that typically invest in these. And so we went down a different path.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
But we got public and that worked out okay.

Jeff Aronin:
And as you have, it's interesting. You went a route, especially with Lurie where it was, a lot of, it was not just based on the promise of great returns, but the impact the technology would have in the world.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
I think in almost every single case that's something, we had Bill Gates invest. He didn't invest to make money. He didn't want to look stupid. He vetted the thing like crazy, but you know, he wanted to change the world in terms of developing therapeutics that could address diseases like GBM, glioblastoma multiform, that have no treatment, no real treatment or cure. And that's been really quite meaningful. Those are great people to interact. Louis Simpson from Chicago, he's not against making money. He's made a ton of money. He was Warren Buffet's a top investor. He wanted to do this because he looked at this as a way to significantly change the world on, one in the 3D printing side of things. And the other was in the development of new forms of clean energy with a company called Stoicheia, which is one that we've kind of kept under the radar, but it's been developing. It's a big data AI for materials discovery play.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
These guys, they don't mind making money, but that's not their core driver. And certainly Ann Lurie's in that case was not, she went into it with the right intentions and helped us build something that actually has changed the world at Verigene Systems now. And as I understand it over half the world's top hospitals, which is an amazing thing to go from just a scientific paper in the late 1990s to basically everywhere all over the world, impacting how we track and treat disease. It's a pretty good feeling.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. But I think that's a great lesson for many up and coming entrepreneurs is not just looking for VCs that are investing, but finding people that have a connection to what you're doing. There's another question around the idea of, you mentioned building teams. What is it you're looking for when you build your teams when you're looking for the right management for your technology?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
I would have to say the same thing that I once heard Gates say, I won't say it as eloquently as he did, but you know, looks for that one person in the company. Not just me. In fact, sometimes I'm not negative because in the early days, they'll have me present. And I feel like I have a pretty good view of where we are today and where we're headed and can lay out the story in a very, very compelling way. But they're like, well, wait a second, you're keeping your day job.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Where are the other people that are going to shepherd this through? And let me meet and understand them. So to me, the most important thing is who is that one person in the company that is going to eat live and breathe it, that will not let the company fail. That is driving it, not just to make money, not just looking at it as a paycheck, but it is their passion in life and is going to do everything they possibly can to turn that into a success. And those people, first of all, are hard to find. And when you find one of them that's, I think who you want to bet on.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. Yeah. I would agree with that. When you are building these teams, you're usually private, how are you rewarding them? Because you're the, usually, like you said before you have full control, how are you structuring them?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So, I mean, obviously they have a piece of the company, every employee shares with respect to equity. And early on they're, a lot of them are coming out of the labs. They're used to working like dogs and not expecting enormous salaries, which is important in the starting of a startup. But very quickly they become familiar with the term a compensation consultant. And by that time you have more resources in the company.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And in every case, I just went out with a few of them they're all very happy. And the experience that they've gotten and they have a piece of the action along the way, and the ability to really hit Nirvana. I think it drives them both in terms of, Hey, we're doing something that's great. It's taking, oftentimes it's things that we started or made, where we made a discovery in the lab, turn it into something the world really needs and wants. And two, getting compensated really well for it.

Jeff Aronin:
Yeah. Yeah. I agreed. Why don't we take a second and go through some of your companies in the technology that led to that company?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Okay. So I've mentioned a Nanosphere. A second company we had was NanoInk, which developed research tools, nano printing tools, based upon this concept of dip-pen lithography. We built that up. It was around for about seven, eight years. It sold primarily research tools, to universities around the world. But it was hard to develop into a technology that could scale, at least based upon that the current iteration of that technology, was basically a glorified atomic force microscope that was used to instead of read a surface, to get topological maps of the surface, to write out chemical structures on surfaces. And that company from my perspective had, after I had left it for four years, had really bad management and made some decisions that spread itself, a mile wide, an inch deep, and just couldn't continue. It failed.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
You know, I learned a lot from that process. And all fast forward to where we are today. We learned how to scale that technology, where we no longer use a single pen. We now make tools that have literally 11 million nanoscale pens that can synthesize materials faster than anybody on earth and can build the equivalent of gene chips, but much larger, much higher density for materials discovery. So imagine in a four by four centimeter area, being able to make literally hundreds of millions of new materials. Materials that have never been made before, all positionally encoded, what does that do for you? Well, the world depends upon new materials for everything. Catalysis, for light harvesting. You pick it. If you just think of how much the world depends upon new materials. As a world, we have made since the beginning of time and characterized about a half a million new materials.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So put that in perspective. So a company called Stoicheia, that we just started, can now make in a four by four centimeter chip, we call the data factory, more materials in one experiment than scientists have cumulatively made to date. By orders of magnitude. And so then you can take that chip and you can begin to screen and ask, where are the hotspots on this chip, for example, for the next catalyst that can turn CO2 into methanol, ethane to methane, to whatever you like, that can drive whatever chemical process you'd like. But here's the third thing.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
It is the world's greatest source of big data in the materials discovery space. So you have all of these materials in one big chip. You can collect all that data in one shot, and now you can train AI, artificial intelligence to begin to navigate the materials genome and make those predictions without you even doing the experiments. And so there's a big play here where this is going to be used now to rapidly discover materials from many different industries, geared heavily towards clean energy, but then branching out from that as it gets developed. But the big play called the Seesaw model first brute force screening, then moving to how do we develop and educate machines that can effectively digitize a component of the workforce and tell us in a very objective way, what structures we should make to solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. That's great. So that company is newly or brand new, I mean?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well, it's been around about a year and a half, so we're actually doing our second round of financing. We're going to close it out within two weeks.

Jeff Aronin:
Okay. And focus on these database of synthetic material structures that you're making?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
It will be the first big data, because you can't get this data anywhere. There's nothing like what I just described anywhere. So the ability to collect data faster than anybody on earth and train AI, we've already done a collaboration with Toyota where we've used machine learning to make predictions about materials that no living person could make.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So they're very fired up over this. I mean, so this... And that was with a relatively small data set. What Stoicheia has is this massive data set. And they always say we're all about the data. They keep collecting, collecting, collecting over time. And the name of this game is those who are first that get most. So educating and building that capability on the AI side of things ahead of time. Even if other technologies come along down the way, it's very difficult to displace that, because you're constantly putting all that data input over time into the machine that's making those predictions.

Jeff Aronin:
As long as you can stay focused in that one area and don't begin to try to do everything.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Right. So that's why we've geared it towards electric catalyst for clean energy. So how do you use electrification.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
To take chemicals of low value, CO2, and turn them into chemicals of high value. And the reason for that is exactly what it's saying. Don't be a mile wide and inch deep, build an infrastructure where you can have one team constantly turn the crank and understand without having to have, okay. Now we want to go down to this. And develop a new team and a new team and a new team. There'll come a day where you do that. But in early days you'd like everything there's lots to do in this electrification business. The infrastructure's common across the board. So in terms of the cost of building up the company, they're reasonably controlled and it's very attractive obviously from the clean energy standpoint.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. And how do you think about on a science perspective, structure versus function?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well, that's the name of the game here. So the bottom line is, scientist can't tell you what combination of elements, what particle size, what particle shape would be the best catalyst to split water. The best catalyst to convert CO2 in a methanol. So instead of saying, Hey, I'm going to hire a bunch of smart people, which is always a good strategy too, to use intuition and take shots on goal. We're going to do 250 million of those and just look at all the different parameters at once. And then let the chip tell us where to go. Look at those structures and cross correlate structure with function. Use that data to train the machines to then objectively be that smart person that's not prone to a existing, a conventional wisdom or -

Jeff Aronin:
Bias.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
... predisposition or bias. Exactly.

Jeff Aronin:
Yeah. That's great. Very exciting. I mean, it's an exciting element of where science is going. Can you, and I want to talk about that, but before I do, you mentioned some of your, there's mixed results. Some of your company's worked some didn't, you're now starting new ones based on your science. Can you talk about that learning of things, working things not, and as you're starting new ones, Hey, I'm not going to do that again. I want to do it this way. Is there any big learnings for all of us?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Again, part of it's knowing who you're doing it with. And as I said, as you go through this, so in every case where I've had companies that haven't worked, I've learned a lot, but the not working has happened years after I've left them. So I have a rule. I mean, I won't work with people that I don't want to work with. And I'm a pretty outgoing person, I like most people, but there's certain people that I'd rather not work with. And two is, I won't work on something that I don't believe can succeed. So if the company takes a path that I don't fully believe in, I will often, I'll try to navigate, I'm often on the board and convince. But if I can't convince, I often step away and just say I'm not going to be disruptive.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
You guys go do this. It's a collective effort. And this is the decision. Because again, I'm moving as we go through the development of this company, I've got my day job at Northwestern. I'm not, that's not, I hate to see it go, right. But I don't have the ability to completely influence that. So that's been kind of my experience. Now, I learn from what happens from that point on, both good and bad. And I try to incorporate that into the next company that we start. And so when I talk to investors now, I mean, and you know, I say you have the benefit. I've seen everything. We've done every type of deal there is, we've done billion dollar deals with big pharma. We've developed the world's largest 3D printer. That's a company called Azul 3D. We've sold companies. We've taken companies public via the conventional route. We've taken them public by reverse merger. So I've seen almost every type of deal that can be done. And I would say I'm a lot better now than I was when I first started in terms of judging right and wrong path.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. When we talked earlier about how things have evolved to your latest company. Chemistry has, I mean, I've watched it, the way we developed medicine years ago, the chemistry was manual. Now, it's all done via computer technology. AI is now getting involved, quantums in the future. What are the things you're seeing that are shaping your, where you think things are going, what has you excited about technology in the future, whether it's nano or drug discovery or material science?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Yeah, I mean, I think that, to me, the two big waves that I think are be really important is that AI is going to keep creeping into more and more of our lives. And more and more of this type of technology discovery play. So it's here to stay. It's overblown in certain cases, it's only as good as the data inputs, but you get sent all sorts of advertisements because you're tracked constantly and people know your preferences, and that data's really quite good. And the challenge of, for example, taking it into materials discovery is, although what I said is in principle very possible, it requires that you make chips that have 250 million features. It requires a lot more data and it's a much more difficult parameter set, and it requires really high quality inputs to get good answers.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So I think you're going to see more of that. And it's going to creep into lots of different fields. I think on the therapeutics front, I think we're about to enter a revolution in terms of how vaccines are developed. And I don't mean that just because of Moderna, we've already gone through one revolution, the mRNA revolution. And I think that more of that is following. I think one of the great things about Moderna is that, you have to understand that company was I wouldn't say, wasn't failing, but it wasn't in great shape at the heart, the start of the COVID pandemic. The COVID pandemic really made them. And did a couple of things besides saying, Hey, can you produce this vaccine? It put a spotlight on making medicines in new ways. And they were able to turn this into something that has great good, I mean, has impacted probably everybody in this room in a really significant way and put a spotlight on a new way of making medicines.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And that's what they wanted to do. They wanted to make medicines from RNA. I think another revolution is going to be coming out in the vaccine space, which focuses on developing vaccines in ways that the current mRNA vaccines don't function and can't address, at least with the current technology. And that is to use advances in nanotechnology to open up what I call rational vaccinology. So I like to say that in the old way of making vaccines, and we still make a lot of vaccines via the old way. We take two things, an adjuvant, which is a stimulator of the immune system, something to pump your immune system up, and an antigen, which is designed to train your immune system to eradicate only certain cells, not the rest of the cells that make up your body. You don't want to have a lot of autoimmune problems.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And the way they did this in the past was they take these components, isolate them and put them together. I call the blender approach, inject them and let biodistribution, natural biodistribution handle where they go and how they're processed. With nanotechnology, you can now think about taking those components and putting them into one structure and all the components go into one cell type that you want them to go into, and you can get a better response. You can change that structure and change how things are processed, the rates at which they're processed and their effectiveness. And so to make a long story short, I can take the components of vaccines, the blender approach, put them in three different forms, for example, to develop immunotherapies for cancer. And in one case, I can have something that's totally ineffective. And another case I can have something that's mildly effective. And then a third, I can have something that's totally curative.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And that's kind of a radical concept if you think about it, because it means that we might have had the right components, but the wrong structure. And so nanotechnology is allowing us to open up this whole idea of kind of building vaccines for things like treating different forms of cancer, training your immune system to eradicate different types of cancer cells or for infectious disease. And we've done this with COVID as well, moving with the variance, for example, very quickly.

Jeff Aronin:
That's great. That's great. That is exciting. The area of, I hear you talking about science and how you tie it to business. And I know because we have a lot of founder scientists within our companies. Not everybody can articulate the way you do the science, how it connects to people, how it connects to future products. Have you thought about, and one of the questions is related to that. Have you thought about that, your ability to do that, where that came from, how some future business leaders that are scientists today can learn to do that?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well, it's kind of funny goes full circle to the first question you asked about freshman chemistry. Going into that class, I mean, I used to hear that certain professors aren't very good at, they're great scientists, but they're not very good teachers. I think that's baloney. If you're not a good teacher, you're not a good scientist as far as I'm concerned. You have to be able to look at difficult concepts. And Richard Feynman once said that, some consider the founder of nanotechnology, Nobel Prize winning physicist from Caltech. If you can't teach it, you don't understand it. And if you can't teach it in simple terms, you don't understand it. Even complex concepts. So I spent in the early years thinking, okay, I've been on the other side. The secret they don't tell you when you pay your bill to go to college at Northwestern and any other school in the country, is that your professor, if they just came out of their postdoc and started at Northwestern or any other elite school, they've had no teaching experience.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And they just hand them the keys to the classroom and say, go at it. There's no quality control. But if you have self respect and really want to do a good job, you say, okay, how are these kids going to respond to this? You know, if I put myself in their shoes, will they understand what I'm saying? So I began to take and try to figure out ways of taking difficult concepts first in chemistry, and to distill them down into forms that I could see myself on the other side, understanding and getting excited about, and I've carried that through to business. And I believe that you have to be able to take a very complex topic, take like Stoicheia, and distill it down, not a 40 minute presentation, but a five minute present, maybe a three minute presentation.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
You should have ways of doing that. And you can't say, well, that's good enough. That's close enough. I don't have enough time to do it. If it doesn't make sense, then redo it. If you can't see yourself on the other side, understanding what you're saying, it's not ready. And so when we, whether it's teaching freshman chemistry or talking about a new business or new opportunity, I always try to think, okay, how do I make the connections? How do I talk about this in a way that even the least knowledgeable, but smart people in the room can understand what's going on here. Why this is exciting, what we're trying to do.

Jeff Aronin:
Very good. Well, listen, one of the areas, you've built your companies here in Chicago or Evanston, Chicago, I've built many of my companies here. And I find it to be a great environment because you have world class teaching institutions like the purple you're wearing, and there's-

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
University issued.

Jeff Aronin:
University of Chicago. There's also great medical centers. There's great, big pharma companies, training grounds. But you know, it's also a tough environment for certain reasons. What is your experience been, real life, what do you find?

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
Well, it really shouldn't be if you think about it, but it is you're right. We have great universities, right? So look at Boston. There's a reason much of pharma has basically built their entire operation in Cambridge because they have access to Harvard and MIT. And they value that, both in terms of the workforce, they can recruit, but also a lot of the cutting edge ideas that are coming out of those schools. We have those as well. I mean, you have to remember the chemistry for making DNA, the modern day gene machines was invented at Northwestern University, a guy named Bob Langer. I mean, to Bob Letsinger, not Bob Langer. And back then you didn't tout that so much. This guy was incredible. And we didn't have a machine at the time to really translate a lot of those advances.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
So what's the machine. You need great ideas. We have great ideas. We great, some of the best scientists in the world coming to Northwest University of Chicago, Illinois, people like John Roger, who just moved Ted Sargent to who's the biggest clean energy expert in the world, from Toronto. Shana Kelly on the biomedical front, Milan Mrksich from University of Chicago, moved to Northwestern. We've been cultivating that for a long time, building up an army of capabilities. These people have tremendous inventions in the basis for a lot of the technologies that can change the world. That's not enough. You need to have people that can work with them to translate on the business side of things. We actually have quite a few of those people. We've got some of the best business schools-

Jeff Aronin:
Yeah.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
... in the world here, right. Interfacing them, I think that's important. And a lot of the programs, including MATTER, and other entities that are out there, are beginning to create an ecosystem where you can take advantage of that. But the third, which I would say we haven't fully cracked is the money. And it's not that we don't have enough money. We got plenty of money in Chicago, but it's what I call risk averse money. The risk taking money, the bulk of it is still on the east and west coast. And until we cross that chasm. And that requires a big cultural change. We have a lot of money that follows, but we don't have a lot of money that leads on the high tech side of things, biotech type side of things in particular, that's what I'm most familiar with. And that's problematic because if you, if you go to the west and east coast, you'll have these venture capitalists that are embedding within universities and trying to find the next... I have people coming now from the west coast to Northwestern to find the next big idea and what they can bet on.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
And some of the blue chip venture capital groups there. And I call that moving the needle, right? So it used to be, it was impossible to get money from the coasts into things that were started here. That's changed. That's a good news.

Jeff Aronin:
Right.

Dr. Chad Mirkin:
You know, I mentioned something like Gates taking his money and putting it in Chicago based, that's fantastic. We need more of that. It's slow. It's that gradual transition that we talked about from viewing this as dancing with a devil, to something you give medals for to something that I perceive as having great value and we need some big success stories. The more, you've had some, the more success stories we have, I think it's going to make it easier and easier for the people to follow.

Jeff Aronin:
I agree that's a great answer. And it's not only the great successes of the companies, but the change that we've seen with academic founder scientists, like you, they do it and other researchers see it, and then they follow and that's changing. It's great for us to society because new medicines are developed new technologies, our lives get better. So thank you for the work you're doing. And thank you for being here today.