MBAs market new cancer treatment

Brian Smith and Irene Susantio, winners of Wharton Business Plan Competition

Two Wharton MBA graduates have developed a start-up company, Solixia, based on new technology that will allow doctors to more accurately target cancerous tumors.

Solixia was built on the idea that doctors could inject an agent into a patient’s bloodstream that can help them target tumor cells. This process is based on the technology known as HotDot—radioactive nanoparticles that can be attached to tumor-targeting antibodies, peptides or small molecules. A signal transmits images of cancerous cells to an imaging camera, which can then detect the cancer’s spread.

“There are diagnostic techniques that involve delivering radioactivity to tumors, and traditionally, they have failed, because it’s been impossible to get enough radioactivity to the tumor such that it’s visible,” says Solixia co-founder Brian Smith, who received his MBA from Wharton this month. “Our technology is really a higher payload delivery vehicle. The basic paradigm of the imaging has not changed. It uses what’s already out there. This is just a better radiotracer.”

Smith and co-founder Irene Susantio, also a MBA graduate, recently won top prize at the Wharton Business Plan Competition. The Competition is an intense, seven-month process in which teams from across the University develop businesses and compete for prize money and in-kind legal and accounting services. Throughout the three-stage process, judges and Wharton professors provide feedback and guidance. As Grand Prize winners at this year’s Competition, Susantio and Smith received $20,000 in prize money.

“I think Irene and I both have considerable passion for this technology and for its potential to impact patient care,” says Smith, who also holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Penn and invented the HotDot technology that serves as the platform for Solixia. “I think that came through. People see that when we talk about it—they see the fire in our eyes. They see this is something we really believe in and that goes a long way.”

The idea for the company actually predates Smith’s time at Wharton, when he was a graduate student at Penn, working on developing nanotechnology for applications in medicine.

He moved to the Fox Chase Cancer Center and pursued the idea, but ultimately decided if he were to bring this idea out of the lab, he needed to understand more about the dynamics of the biotech business. “It wasn’t until Irene and I connected earlier this year that things gained substantial momentum and really, what was a conception began to look more and more like a real company.”

The team’s top challenge was conveying the idea in such a way that made people understand not just the product, but how it could be used to improve patient care. “What we tried to make the judges understand is how this product can impact the patients, how much they need this product,” says Susantio, who also holds a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Currently out there, there is some sufficient technology that can help to detect the breast cancer spread [but there is] reoccurrence in the patients and a lot of patients, when they find out about it, it is already too late, or when the doctor finds out about it, they cannot determine what is the right treatment for the patients. There is a great need for this technology.”

Smith adds that their technology doesn’t compete with mammograms. “There are many different steps in the patient flow that are involved in diagnosing breast cancer. We actually fit in a little bit later than mammograms.”

In fact, they believe this technology can be used to fight other cancers, as well. Its appeal lies in the precise way it delivers radioactivity to tumors. “The good thing about this technology is it actually delivers the radioactivity to where it should be,” says Susantio. “There is also a targeting function in the radiotracer that can actually target just the tumor ... but nowhere else.”

Smith and Susantio are now working to make Solixia a sustainable company, and are on the cusp of entering into a licensing option with Penn for the underlying intellectual property. They also have a grant proposal pending, with research partner Fox Chase, to the National Cancer Institute. “It’s not easy to build a biotechnology company,” says Smith. “You have to worry about intellectual property, you have to worry about regulatory hurdles, reimbursement, pricing—these things factor in and we certainly don’t have all the answers we need—nor are we expected to, but we’re aware of the questions we need to be asking.”

What’s most important, they both agree, is their synchronicity as a team. “At the end of the day, it’s all about people,” Smith says. “That’s ultimately what people will invest in. It’s not the technology, it’s not the market opportunity. It is to our credit that we spent so much time making sure that we were a good combination.”

Originally published on May 22, 2008