Former Director at Illumina, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Pillar Biosciences
Dale is a trained molecular biologist with over 7 years of clinical research and 23 years of corporate experience in biotechnology. Dale marketed and sold microarray and next-generation sequencing instruments in the field for Illumina for 6 years before joining Life Technologies which was later purchased by Thermo Fisher as Illumina’s largest competitor in clinical sequencing. He has also worked for 6 years at Qiagen after starting his career as a cancer and immunology researcher at the John Wayne Institute. Dale more recently worked for SeraCare Life Sciences, Pillar Biosciences, Helligenics and works closely with various oncology and liquid biopsy startups today. Read more
Dale, can you provide a short introduction to your background in the industry?
It was about 20 years ago and I had come back from an overseas stint, in mainland China, and before leaving, I had been working, for China, in the research laboratory. I had been working at a small cancer institute, in Santa Monica, California, working on different research problems around skin cancer; specifically, melanoma. Way back in the 90s, I was working on tumor immunology, when tumor vaccines were considered a bit of a pipe dream.
When I came back to the US after a couple of years abroad, I started working for a small US division of a German company, called QIAGEN, who actually makes the sample preparation kits and consumables that are used to purify RNA from a biological sample. For example, in the current COVID-19 crisis, you have throat swabs, naso-pharyngeal swabs, that are diluted into a medium. What the QIAGEN kit will do is purify the RNA, the nucleic acid, from the potentially infectious SARS coronavirus in that sample.
QIAGEN, at that time, was selling to the research market and not so much to the clinical market, because it was much, much smaller. That was 20 years ago, working for a sample preparation company and I then joined Illumina in 2003, when they only had a single product. They then grew into a microarray company and, in 2005, I moved from San Diego, where I had lived, to the East Coast, to sell these microarray chips, as well as the microarray instruments that would read these DNA chips, to the National Institutes of Health, here in the DC area.
In 2007, Illumina acquired a small startup, called Solexa. I was working in the field, selling microarrays to the National Institutes of Health, at the time when Illumina acquired a small startup called Solexa, and launched the first genome analyzer in 2007. I sold this NGS equipment to the first genomics customers, at the National Institutes of Health and saw that market just explode and take off. I moved to a startup and then moved to a company called Life Technologies. Life Technologies was the merger of Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems. Applied Biosystems was and still is, the market leader in the first-generation sequencing instruments, in something called Sanger sequencing. It was a good €400 million market for them. They then launched a product called SOLiD, which was the competitor to the genome analyzer. I was involved in sales and field marketing. At that time, Life Technologies purchased another small startup, called Ion Torrent, and shifted their next generation sequencing efforts from the SOLiD platform to the Ion Torrent platform and they still sell and market that platform today; it is now called Genexus.
Nonetheless, that was 2013 or so when Ion Torrent and Illumina were battling it out in the marketplace. The last five years, I have been moving towards clinical applications, working for several different companies involved in different applications of using next generation sequencing, for cancer diagnostics. One was a company called SeraCare, acquired by a conglomerate called LGC and they launched their precision medicine platform. What we sold there were controls for cancer testing, for tumor as well as liquid biopsy.
Pillar Biosciences was another start up, providing reagents for that tumor testing, as well as liquid biopsy. I worked for another small startup, called Singlera, working on early detection for colorectal cancer. Again, this liquid biopsy was on the upstream side, looking at detection of cancer, rather than therapy selection, which is further downstream. My last major role in liquid biopsy was for a startup, called Inostics, which was acquired by a Japanese hematology company, called Sysmex. Sysmex Inostics was also liquid biopsy, mainly selling to pharma customers.
That’s me. 20 years of industry experience, seven years of behind-the-bench experience and lots of experience in talking about both clinical and research applications of this technology.
Can we take a step back to the late 90s. Can you describe microarrays and the machine and instruments you were selling, prior to Illumina acquiring Solexa?
Your audience is, very likely, familiar with the term PCR now, given there are PCR-based tests for coronavirus. In the mid-90s, around 1995, 1996, Roche Molecular launched something called a TaqMan system for a certain type of blood cancer, to detect a certain molecule in the bloodstream. It was called BCR-ABL and this TaqMan test was a clinical test, using PCR technology. This was in the mid-90s. This is the clinical application of technology that was a research workhorse.
Throughout the 90s, a small startup company in Silicon Valley, called Affymetrix, was publishing remarkable papers, being able to synthesize DNA on a microchip, using photo microlithography technology. Instead of etching wires, you actually build DNA strands on a microchip. There are two different approaches to what Affymetrix was able to do, as well as using academic efforts, using what are called spotted microarrays. One was to use a number of different genetic technologies to get 1,000 or 2,000 genes and spot them on a one inch by three inch glass slide. Then, using fluorescence, to be able to label and sample them. Say you have a blood sample from a patient, you purify the RNA, you label the RNA from that sample, using fluorescence, you hybridize it to the chip and now you can assay, you can test, 2,000 different genes at once.