Monday, 9 October 2017

Identigen clean up Switzerland

Identigen is one of the great successes of Irish biotech companies. I knew all the principals when it was founded as a campus company in TCD 20+ years ago. It span out of an academic research project that was using genetic fingerprints to trace the evolution of cattle. Two of the nicest young middle-class postgrads you could meet showed that they had the bottle to go out to the rawest parts of the Third World to gather and process bovine blood-samples. The academic project was a big success showing clearly that cattle have been domesticated twice: once up the Indus Valley and once in Europe [or more likely in the Near East with subsequent migration into the wilds of uncivilised Europe. The 'Indian' zebu cattle Bos indicus with the big dewlap and a hump on the shoulders are so genetically different from Euro humpless cattle Bos taurus as to suggest a separation of 200,000 years. That's waaaay before humans domesticated anything; so domestication must have happen twice in divergent undomesticated ancestral species. A case can be made that [some] African cattle have incorporated a third strain of wild cattle in their mix.

But one of the young turks in the Bovine Lab, working away on processing bovine blood samples to obtain genetic information, had the idea of monetising his hard-won lab-skills. He never finished his PhD but floated off on the idea that identifying individual cattle with a unique bar-code could help trace BSE aka mad-cow disease. That was the birth of Identigen. Getting the technology reliable and reproducible is only one part of launching a company; you then have to get alongside some venture capital; stabilise your burn-rate; scale up and start delivering product. The product here is information and their slogan is "from the pasture to the plate". Every side of beef is sampled as it comes through the slaughter-house, the DNA is sequenced for a unique code and that information is attached to the number on the ear-tag. If you-the-customer come down with food-poisoning or an as yet unnamed virus, Identigen can sample the container that held the hamburger and finger the farm it came from. If the problem is at source it can be remediated.

Many years later, I asked one of the directors if Identigen was profitable. He went all leery on me and answered "It depends what you mean by profit". I guess he meant that he was drawing a nice salary, as were all the Effectives, but the company wasn't coughing out payola dividends twice a year to its investors.

I was in the lab next door and a few years later we also developed some IP = intellectual property. We were working in the field of innate immunity and carried out some experiments which opened a door to the problem of antibiotic resistance. The results were preliminary but we had our own young turk who was ambitious and scientifically competent but more importantly was interested in money and the stuff that money can facilitate. We also had a medical consultant with wodges of folding-money in his golf-cart who might be induced to buy shares in a campus start-up. I had absolutely no interest in monetising my ideas and The Boss had a full time job and lots of extra-mural commitments already. I can't remember why or when the prospect of becoming share-holders in a new biomedical venture went tits up. But it never got off the ground and our tame senior medico never realised how close he came to being shaken down for some ca$h. We were capitalist wusses altogether.

Their entrepreneurial spirit has landed Identigen a 5 year €17 million contract to keep tabs on the quality, purity and provenance of Swiss beef and beef-products. For the next five years it will be much harder to get horseburger [bloboprev] in Zurich.

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