Vital Signs: Mapquest For Microbes

Welcome to Kendra Marr's new blog-in-a-blog on the Washington area's biotech and health care scene. We're calling it Vital Signs.

By Kendra Marr

"This is a win for us," said Kristina G. Ellis, a spokeswoman for Montogomery County Department of Economic Development, as she waved me into the white tent. "It's always nice to grow our own, but the next best thing is to bring them in."

Inside, the county, state and local executives gathered to celebrate the relocation of OpGen, a Madison, Wis.- genome analysis firm, to Gaithersburg. "I want to thank you personally -- you got me home three hours early today," David Edgerley, Maryland's secretary of Maryland Business and Economic Development and Montgomery resident, told the crowd of black suits.

Edgerley presented OpGen a $200,000 state loan, plus $20,000 from the county, to outfit its new headquarters, telling them to "grow bigger buildings, bigger things and bigger dreams."

Located on Quince Orchard Road, OpGen's 15,000-square foot building was formerly inhabited by Gene Logic. Over the next few years, OpGen plans to add more than 100 jobs -- and "poach employees from other companies," joked OpGen chairman Ronald Lennox of CHL Medical Partners.

"These are the types of high quality, high paying jobs the county needs," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

OpGen chief executive Noel Doheny talks about the move to Montgomery. Photo by Fran Shay, OpGen's executive administrator.

Essentially, OpGen is "MapQuest for microbes," explained chief executive Noel Doheny, before heading inside for a champagne toast and tour of the facility. Send the company a bug and they'll ship you back a multi-colored map of its genome.

In 2006, OpGen was one of the many labs that helped the Food and Drug Administration confirm the exact bacteria triggering E. coli outbreaks from spinach, and recently its genome maps aided the agency again in determining the source of salmonella in jalapeno peppers. But the company's mapping technology is also being used in academia and commercial sector. For instance, a maker of probiotic yogurt wants to use a genome map to find the genes that make its yogurt taste better.

Founded in 2001, OpGen, licensed its optical mapping technology from New York University and the University of Wisconsin. Up until a year ago, it was still a small startup with five employees.

But $23.6 million in equity financing changed everything. Investors -- CHL Medical Partners, Mason Wells, Highland Capital Partners, Versant Ventures and In-Q-Tel, the CIA's investing arm -- went hunting for a new chief executive. In January, they hired Doheny to turn OpGen's mapping service into a commercial product.

Doheny did his graduate work in biochemistry at Georgetown University. After spending 25 years outside the Washington region, guiding other startups towards commercialization, he returned to put together a molecular diagnostic business for Germantown's Qiagen in 2004.

Doheny now lives in Potomac, and executives from Highland Capital and Mason Wells also have family in Maryland. Since Maryland -- home to the groundbreaking efforts that mapped the human genome -- was always on the company's shortlist of possible new headquarters, it seemed like a right fit, Doheny said.

"There's a lot of be said about Maryland," he told me. "Our climate is better, there's a lot to do in the area, the young workforce."

OpGen moved to Montgomery County's Business Innovation Network incubator and graduated in four months.

Last month, Evan Jones, former chief executive of Gaithersburg's Digene, which was purchased by Qiagen in 2007, gave the firm an undisclosed amount through his new private fund, jVen Capital.

Now the company is settling its 55 employees into Gaithersburg. It hired its first sales representative this week, but is also keeping some activities in Madison.

"What we've been doing to transfer the technology from Madison to Maryland is having key lab people come out and train the people we've hired locally," Doheny said.

Next year OpGen wants to launch its product into the world of personalized medicine -- a targeted growth area in Gov. Martin O'Malley's Bio 2020 Initiative. Doheny envisions it could help hospitals quickly identify the right antibiotic to treat patients' mysterious infections.

"We're going to be testing our system in clinical laboratories to demonstrate our ability to identify bacteria in a 2 hour window -- what now takes eight days," he said.

By Dan Beyers  |  September 19, 2008; 2:05 PM ET  | Category:  Vital Signs
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