In this interview with David Sheehan (CEO), we explore how Nucleus Biologics is revolutionizing the cell culture market through a concept known as “Precision Cell Culture.” The focus of Nucleus Biologics is to deliver superior cell culture products by leveraging a transparent, consistent and proven supply chain that eliminates variability for its customers. In addition to its novel Physiologix™ product line, Nucleus Biologics provides the highest quality Australia and New Zealand origin fetal bovine serum (FBS) available in the market with a goal to enable better lifesaving science.
With an estimated $28 billion lost per year to irreproducible biology research, it is clear that the market is overdue for disruption and Nucleus Biologics appears to be the company positioned to do it. In this interview, we explore Mr. Sheehan’s background, the disruptive nature of Nucleus Biologics, and his inspiring vision for the future.
Interview with David Sheehan, CEO of Nucleus Biologics
Cade Hildreth: What is your professional background?
David Sheehan: My professional background is that I have an engineering undergrad and an MBA. I went into life sciences shortly after completing my MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. I have always had an interest in the life sciences field and have held a variety of positions from sales and marketing to research to CEO roles within companies of different sizes. These companies have included Baxter, Haemonetics, which was a blood products company, and imaging companies like Volcano.
Cade Hildreth: That is an interesting path, and as you know, we share Dartmouth College in common. What inspired you to start Nucleus Biologics and what year did you found it?
David Sheehan: Like most great things, it started as a coffee conversation with a guy named Neil Reisman. Neil was a managing director at a large fund and had investments across both biopharmaceutical companies and in the cattle business. The idea was that we could start a company and take advantage of some of the assets that his fund had, while changing the way that out first product, fetal bovine serum (FBS), was manufactured and brought into the marketplace.
The inspiration was, how do we make science better by improving the products that are basically the building blocks of that science?
Cade Hildreth: What have been the major accomplishments of Nucleus Biologics over the past 2 years since you started it?
David: Any early stage company has its ups and downs, and we have as well. We started in April 2016 and spent that first 9 months building our supply chain. We launched our Australian-origin fetal bovine serum (FBS) in January 2017. For that product, we were able to secure 25-30 customers in our first year and eclipsed 3 million in revenue, so we finished that first year strong.
In addition to that, we moved into our new facility, which is in San Diego in one of the biotech clusters. We also launched a second product, which is our human origin growth factor concentrate.
Cade: That is impressive. What solutions do Nucleus Biologics’ products provide for the cell culture marketplace?
David Sheehan: Our view is to address the foundation of research, the whole reproducibility aspect. What we wanted to do was to create an entirely traceable and physiologically relevant cell culture ecosystem.
If cell culture is the root of most of the science that’s going on, the biology that’s going on, then those products, those reagents and the tools that you’re using are the building blocks for that science. What we’re trying to do is create a cell culture ecosystem that’s 100% reproducible.
I think we’ve started that and we continue to strive towards that.
Cade Hildreth: Wow, that is revolutionary for cell culture. Why do you think other cell culture providers haven’t addressed these issues yet?
David Sheehan: I’m not sure. I think that maybe in the race to get revenue, some companies have lost sight of the overarching benefit to the customer. It’s not always getting them the lowest price or winning the business. It’s got to be about making sure that we’re helping researchers to develop reproducible science.
There was a Nature article that said there’s $28 billion a year lost in irreproducible research. If we can make a small dent in that, it’s going to mean that science gets into the market faster and into the clinic faster. It’s going to help more patients.
Cade Hildreth: Fantastic. Who is an example of a client who has had great success with Nucleus Biologics’ solutions, in contrast to past experiences?
David: We’ve been fortunate. We have been able to secure customers in the leading academic centers, biotechs, and bioproduction facilities. One of the reasons people are choosing Nucleus Biologics is because of our unique supply chain. We have thought through the supply chain in every step.
I often hear in cell culture, and even more so on bioproduction, that the process is the product, but I would maybe argue with that and say the supply chain is the product. The people that are most focused on the entire supply chain are the ones who are going to be successful.
One of our customers is Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. It’s one of the leading cancer institutes in the United States, and they’ve been very happy with our products because they are producing HIV vaccines. If they can reliably increase vaccine output, then they can treat more patients with their HIV vaccine. It’s incredibly rewarding if you can make that happen.
Cade Hildreth: Absolutely. What is “precision cell culture” and how do you define or describe its importance?
David Sheehan: Great question. Precision cell culture is a concept that we coined. We were searching for a name to describe cell culture that’s highly reproducible. The idea is that your cell culture is a system. If you take a system engineering view of cell culture, then the cell culture system is the supplement, the basal media of the cells, the cell culture environment, software and process tools, and any equipment or systems that you might use. All of those components need to be considered from a system engineering perspective.
For us, precision cell culture is looking at the totality of those elements and trying to make sure that we are creating products that have high traceability, that are broadly tested, and that are the most relevant to that cell type, in order to ensure reproducibility.
Cade Hildreth: Precision cell culture is a fascinating concept. What other trends are you seeing in the cell culture market?
David Sheehan: In general, I think there has been a feeling that moving towards chemically-defined or serum-free is going to provide a benefit. I would just caution people that, yes, that’s true if your goal is to reduce variability, but what you are eliminating is also very important to the growth of the cells, so there is no perfect media. Every media is going to have benefits and weaknesses.
What we have tried to do is create products that are consistent, potent and traceable. For instance, our PhysiologixTM XF product is completely xeno-free, so there are no animal proteins in it and no animal sources. It is designed specifically for the cell therapy market.
As we see this migration towards products that can move into the clinic faster, I think customers are going to want and demand products where the suppliers have thought through what regulatory framework that cell therapy company is going to be submitting under. That’s what we try to do.
Cade Hildreth: That’s very interesting. What are your 5-year goals for the Nucleus Biologics?
David Sheehan: To put together a 5-year plan! In all seriousness, we have a 3-year plan, and our 3-year plan is to get to $20 million in revenue by 2020. We’re calling it “20 in 20.” More importantly, our plan is to create a broader portfolio of products that address the issue of full traceability and starts a movement towards highly reproducible cell culture.
Our goals are around fulfilling our mission, which is to develop higher quality products to speed and feed scientific breakthroughs. If we can be successful with that, then the revenue will follow.
Cade Hildreth: I completely agree. Are there other approaches through which Nucleus Biologics is disrupting the cell culture marketplace?
David Sheehan: As a scientist, a lot of the decisions that you make going into a research project may seem like they’re simple, but I would encourage you to think through who you are choosing for your reagent supplier and why. Often, there is an immediate response to go with something that’s convenient, and that’s not always the best.
Going to the same supplier over and over again for a broad variety of products isn’t encouraging the diversity of innovation that’s going on. We’re an example. We compete against companies that are much bigger and that have broad product offerings, but we’re taking a completely different approach. Don’t dismiss those little companies that are thinking about things in an orthogonal way, those are the companies that are going to disrupt the industry. Those are the companies that are going to be helping you to be successful in creating a disruptive therapy.
Cade Hildreth: Those are wise words, because it is the specialists like Nucleus Biologics that can provide superior service and client customization.
David Sheehan: Yes, absolutely. The most important thing we do when we go and meet with a customer is to listen to what their needs are. If we have to offer something that’s not on our current website or on our price list, we put it together and create a custom offering, because ultimately, what we want to do is speed science.
We want to make it happen faster so that we can get great ideas into the clinic as fast as possible. You’re not going to get that kind of boutique service from the large companies that have a portfolio of 50,000 SKU’s.
Cade Hildreth: Exactly. Finally, the most important question. How can people get in touch with you to learn more about Nucleus Biologics?
David Sheehan: They can email me. My email is [email protected]. Or, they can go on our website, NucleusBiologics.com. We’re a small company, but we’re very committed to making the best possible products and re-thinking the way cell culture is done and driving a movement towards precision cell culture.
Cade Hildreth: Fantastic. Thank you for the honor of doing the interview. I really appreciate your thoughts and am excited about the impact you’re having on the cell culture marketplace. The market is ready for innovators to develop products and technologies to support reproducible science.
David Sheehan: Cade, thank you. I love what you’re doing in the stem cell field and follow your blog religiously.