Originally published May 2001, Ithaca Times
Word Count: 1521
He calls them “Truth Machines.” Dr. Jack Henion points to a cryptic high tech machine about the size of a refrigerator. “That’s our first Mass Spectrometer,” he says with obvious pride. “We bought it back in 1993. We now have seventeen of them.” The machine emits a loud, though not unpleasant hum. Henion smiles. “That’s the sound of making money.” Good thing, because each one cost about a half million dollars.
Henion is President, CEO and co-founder of Advanced BioAnalytical Services, which was renamed Advion BioSciences this past March. Their primary business has been analyzing biological samples for the pharmaceutical industry. Henion and partner Tom Kurz began the company in April of 1993, setting up a laboratory at 15 Catherwood Road in Lansing. The privately held company was in the black by October, and has been profitable seven out of its eight years.
Mass Spectrometers allow a scientist to deduce the original molecular structure of complex molecules. For example, a blood sample can be analyzed with incredible detail and accuracy, to show the presence of minute drug compounds. Henion says Mass Spectrometry results are unchallenged in court, and is far more accurate than other methods, like DNA analysis. Thus the title, “Truth Machine.” Advion doesn’t manufacture the machines themselves, but have pioneered technology that vastly increases their speed and effectiveness.
Henion, also a Cornell Professor of Toxicology, started the company to take advantage of the unique patented technology he helped develop in his Cornell lab in the mid-1980’s, “Electrospray Ionization” (ESI). It revolutionized the analysis of biological samples, like blood or urine.
Henion’s expertise and knowledge about mass spectrometry has meant he’s been asked to testify as an expert witness at a number of court cases, though it’s not a role he particularly relishes. He was even subpoenaed for the O.J. Simpson trial.
“But I got a call at two in the morning on the night before I was supposed to leave with a message from one of his assistants saying ‘Judge Ito was sick of science.’” Henion shakes his head and laughs. “So I just went back to bed.”
While Henion provides the scientific expertise, his partner Tom Kurz contributes business savvy. Kurz previously worked in business planning at the corporate headquarters for GTE (now Verizon) in Stanford CT, and helped launch GTE Health systems. In 1992 a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Henion. They soon decided to work together. Kurz put together a business plan in the fall of 1992, began to raise capitol, and they were able to launch Advanced BioAnalytical Services April 1, 1993.
Now one of the world’s largest liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS) facilities, Advion’s clients include 13 out of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies. These companies depend on Advion’s unique expertise in using mass spectrometry analysis in their quest to develop the next generation of drugs.
Henion acknowledges that the drug companies have been getting a lot of bad press lately, but he’s proud of the role his company might play in helping them find a cure for diabetes, or a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Or even something as helpful as developing timed-release pills for certain medications that you can take just once a day, instead of multiple pills per day.
As part of getting FDA approval, the pharmaceutical companies will conduct drug trials. Blood samples are taken from volunteers every hour for twenty-four hours, then analyzed to determine how much of the drug is in the body at a particular time.
Usually the results are in terms of nanograms per milliliter of blood. The pharmaceutical companies do some of this work themselves, but they there’s so much to do, they need to outsource part of it. That’s were Advion comes in.
“On numerous occasions we’ve accomplished things that the pharmaceutical companies, or our competition, couldn’t accomplish,” Henion says with pride.
Henion credits Advion’s remarkable success to staying extremely focused.
“We don’t do twenty things, we do just one thing, very, very well. Also, we hire very carefully, expert people, and we train them.”
Advion currently has about 75 employees. Henion knows and appreciates their value.
“We compete with the pharmaceutical industry for talent. They want people like we have here. So I have to make it interesting enough that people want to stay around. We treat people well. Lots of career opportunities.”
While Advion does tap into the local college graduate pool for talent, their reputation helps pull in employees from around the world. One person came all the way from South Africa. Stephen Lowes, Vice President of Bioanalysis, is another long distance recruit.
“Advion has a national and international reputation for excellence in liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry,” Lowes explained. “I personally left the UK to work at Advion in 1995. People always seemed surprised that I didn’t come to Ithaca because of Cornell or Ithaca College. I’d heard of Advion (then Advanced BioAnalytical Services) while working in the LC/MS field in Europe. Two other Brits here have the same story.”
Advion has kept a pretty low local profile, but with success and growth it’s poised to become one of Tompkins County’s major employers of high skilled labor. They are slowly engulfing the huge structure on Catherwood Road that previously housed an indoor tennis court, a roller rink, and was later subdivided into store fronts and office space. Advion keeps knocking down walls as they grow and space becomes available, and now occupies more than half the building. They have also just opened a research and development facility in the Cornell Business and Technology Park on Brown Road, where they will manufacture their own patented ESI Chips.
Advion has 20 patents or applications for this new chip. Not to be confused with a computer chip, this is a flat silicon wafer that uses high-voltage electricity and a special micro nozzle to vastly increase the efficiency of mass spectrometers.
Marketing Specialist Kathy Henion explains, “The whole point of the chips is to make what we do faster and better. That means new drugs can be brought to market more quickly, too.”
Dr. Henion reinforces the point. “This is a revolutionary advance. We have the potential to increase throughput twenty fold and maybe fifty to one hundred fold.”
Advion isn’t going to just keep the chip for their own use - they plan to market it. The chip was developed to be compatible with any commercial mass spectrometer. To that end they recently invested two million dollars to set up the 5500 sq. ft. facility on Brown Road, with clean rooms and special technology to manufacture the chips. In early May of this year they had their first production run. Previously they had to rely on Cornell’s nano-fabrication facility to produce the chips.
The decision to expand and commercialize the ESI Chip helped prompt the company’s name change from Advanced BioAnalytical Services to Advion BioSciences. Henion views the marketing of the new chip as a natural expansion of their quest to remain the world leader in mass spectrometry. Henion is so confident of Advion’s overall edge that they even intend to sell this revolutionary chip to their clients and competition. Beyond that, the potential market for the new chip is huge, with over 10,000 Mass Spectrometers in the US alone, and two to three times that worldwide.
Kurz is particularly excited about Advion’s new chip serving the emerging field of proteomics. While genomics studies genes, proteomics looks at the proteins created by the genes.
“Disease occurs at the protein level, not the genetic level, “Kurz explained. “For example, if you have a liver disease, the key to understanding it is not the genetic code, but in what proteins are specifically made in that cell. By understanding the proteins, we can understand the disease, then we can cure it. And the key technology to studying proteins, is mass spectrometry.”
Protein analysis requires incredibly sensitive equipment, so low that some of the current technology can’t even see them. Advion’s new chip not only increases throughput, but allows a staggering increase in sensitivity. Given those realities, Kurz is understandably quite excited about Advion’s future.
“Wall Street analysts are now saying that proteomics will be much bigger than the genomics effort ever was. And we have a crucial enabling tool for the proteomics area.”
Advion is actively looking for investors to help the company expand. Henion says the their initial meetings with potential investors have gone extremely well.
“Without exception, these people, who see lots of business plans, get excited about what we have here. We have an established leadership role, established revenue stream, and have just invested in a major research and development program.”
Henion envisions Advion’s increasing success and growth as having a very positive effect on the local employment scene.
“We’re starting our new facility at Brown Road with 9 employees. That could easily become 120 over the next few years. And these are high skilled, good paying jobs.”
Any worries about the future?
“Our radar screen is pretty realistic and pretty wide. I don’t really have any concerns. Our technology is solid. We have the best detector in the world.”
And that’s the truth.