A decade ago, Dr. Jim Otvos had an idea in search of a corporate vehicle. At the same time, the College of Management's new Technology Education and Commercialization (TEC) program was looking for business ideas to validate its concept of teaching students how to start a company.
Today, LipoScience, Inc., the company built around Otvos' technology, performs about $30 million annually in comprehensive heart disease risk screenings at its sprawling Raleigh offices, where it employs about 140 people--and serves as the paragon for the TEC program. "There was little interest in commercializing my research before that, and I had zero business background so I couldn't do it myself," Otvos says. "They did a good job of holding my hand through the start-up process."
A biochemistry professor who studied proteins by using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, he began tinkering in medical diagnostics in the mid-1980s after a scientific report suggested--incorrectly--that NMR could be used to predict cancer. "It was totally out of scientific curiosity that I started to fiddle with blood samples," he says.
Otvos found that different levels of cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins in blood produce distinct NMR "signatures," and through continued research, he discovered a better way to test for lipoprotein risk factors. The HDL and LDL cholesterol numbers--often referred to as good and bad cholesterol--doctors have traditionally used to measure heart disease risk aren't as accurate as counting the number of lipoprotein particles, he says, since some particles contain less cholesterol than others. "It is the particles invading the artery walls that cause atherosclerosis," he says, "so the risk of heart disease is actually proportional to the number of particles in your system, not the cholesterol level."
But no one initially thought the technology had commercial potential, believing clinical labs didn't have the trained personnel to run NMR machines and that cheaper cholesterol screening methods would prevail. After one of their inaugural classes performed market research for Otvos' concept, TEC officials wrote a preliminary business plan for a company and Otvos made a leap of faith, licensing his technology from the University and attracting some start-up money.
LipoScience began in 1994 by using its NMR test in clinical trials of cholesterol-lowering drugs, but five years ago, it expanded into patient testing as more doctors began looking for an alternative to traditional screening methods. Patient services now account for about 90 percent of the company's revenue, and several FedEx trucks pull up to the company's offices daily to deliver thousands of blood samples for testing.
Otvos has since left NC State to become the chief scientific officer of LipoScience and now spends his time overseeing medical studies to further document the clinical value of the NMR technology. He hopes to convince more doctors and insurance companies to make the advanced test the new standard of care. Ever the teacher, he admits, "Our future depends on our success in educating physicians."