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Professors Build a Company. Students Start Their Careers.

Undergraduates thrive at Thayer School start-up

In May of this year, GlycoFi Inc. - a spin-out from Thayer School of Engineering - was acquired by Merck & Co. Inc. in a cash transaction valued at approximately $400 million, making it the largest all-cash acquisition of a private biotech company in history. GlycoFi scientists worked for six years to solve one of the pharmaceutical industry's most vexing problems: how to safely and efficiently manufacture protein-based drugs for which demand is rapidly exceeding the supply from conventional production methods. Now, with the solution in hand and the deal done, what's next for Tillman Gerngross, associate professor of engineering and cofounder of GlycoFi? "Find a new problem to solve," he says.


Jaime Mazilu '05 (left) and Tillman Gerngross. As an undergraduate, Mazilu conducted research in Gerngross's lab and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering. (Photo courtesy Jamie Mazilu '05)

GlycoFi's ability to solve such a complex problem hinged upon building a collaborative team of dedicated individuals. This task was made easier by having access to Dartmouth's high concentration of raw talent, including undergraduates. "We had interns working side-by-side with GlycoFi scientists," says Gerngross. "The students wanted to do things in the lab, and the beauty was that they got to see the big picture and contribute."

One of those undergraduate interns was Jaime Mazilu '05. "I first met Professor Gerngross through Dartmouth's Women in Science Project (WISP) and worked in his lab with a postdoctoral researcher during my freshman year," says Mazilu. "I had always been interested in biology, and I thought not only would I learn more about molecular biology and engineering, but I would also be able to contribute to what they were doing.

"The overall experience was amazing both personally and intellectually and really supplemented what I was learning in the classroom. I was able to directly relate the theory to something practical. Also, because of the skills I learned and the people I met, I was able to secure another internship at Eli Lilly and then one at GlycoFi the summer after graduation." Now starting a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at UCLA, Mazilu attributes a great deal of her love for learning to the positive research experience she had in Gerngross's lab.

"GlycoFi provided a wonderful opportunity for students to experience first-hand the engineering of a new technology from the laboratory all the way to its real-world application," says Joseph Helble, dean of Thayer School and professor of engineering. "These students didn't just learn about innovation in a classroom - they helped make it happen."

Another GlycoFi undergraduate intern was Robbie Barbero '01, Th'02. "When I came to Dartmouth, I knew I wanted to combine the life sciences and engineering, but I didn't know how," says Barbero. "Then I took Introduction to Thermodynamics with Professor Gerngross. One day, he gave a lecture on his biotechnology research and I thought, 'This is what I'm looking for!' So I took his Introduction to Biotechnology class and loved it, and then his Metabolic Engineering class and loved that, too. I went to him and asked, 'What else can I do?' and he set me up to work in the lab with Ph.D. student Sriram Srinivasan Th'03.

"Sriram was a really good person to work with. He showed me how complicated real-world problems can be. These are problems that often can't be solved in a two-hour lecture or even in a ten-week course. In the lab, you don't know how long it's going to take to find the answers."

"I continued to work for Professor Gerngross as a research associate, and he let me sit in on Glycofi's weekly research presentations. After I got my B.E., I worked for GlycoFi full time setting up a protein purification process.

"Gerngross didn't hold back from giving me difficult problems to solve, and the experience was enough to get me in the door at a start-up biotech company in San Francisco called Nanostream Inc. I was promoted within just a few months to be a process engineer heading up a major project involving technology that was completely new to me. That's the way Dartmouth and Thayer School educated me - my experience gave me the ability to learn an entirely new technology on the spot and got me used to working collaboratively."

Barbero is now working on a Ph.D. in biological engineering at MIT.

Meanwhile, Thayer School maintains an impressive history of successful entrepreneurship, including many long-standing Hanover area companies such as Creare and Hypertherm. This trend continues with GlycoFi, founded in 2000 by Gerngross together with Charles Hutchinson, former dean and professor emeritus at Thayer School, and an experienced entrepreneur. In six years the company grew from being just an idea to having 60 employees and a state-of-the-art laboratory in nearby Lebanon, N.H.

Using the latest genetic engineering techniques, the GlycoFi team figured out how to turn ordinary yeast cells into mass-producers of the high-quality humanized proteins used to manufacture more than half of all drugs in development today. This new manufacturing process not only increases production capacity for therapeutic proteins, but also raises the quality of the product, and makes it all less expensive, which may ultimately help lower the cost of the resulting drugs. Says Gerngross, "Helping drugs become better, safer, and cheaper can have a broad positive impact on people's lives."

By CATHARINE LAMM

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Last Updated: 5/30/08