KromaTid hopes for slice of $1B market

KromaTiD, a startup that has quickly popped up on the “who’s hot” charts, is the result of a true collaboration.

Birthed in the lab at Colorado State University, the company had five founders from three different organizations, got seed dollars from a range of funders, is currently being run by an executive from the corporate world and boasts a group of prominent supporters that is propelling it forward.

If the technology that led to its founding performs as advertised, all parties stand to benefit — along with perhaps millions of people who suffer from maladies like cancer and autism.

CEO Chris Tompkins is clearly excited about KromaTiD’s prospects. Coming off a successful presentation at BioWest, a biotechnology conference, in September, he says KromaTiD is well positioned to penetrate a market for chromosome imaging and analysis that, by some estimates, will top $1 billion within the next decade.

“We will have products launched into the research market in 2013,” he says, “and two to three years from then, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be profitable.”

He says key contacts were made at BioWest that promise to result in critical collaborations. He projects that 2013 will be a breakthrough year, as the company:

• Triples employment to 15 or more.

• Adds key professional managers to handle sales and marketing.

• Secures a more substantial capital base through a new funding round.

• Moves into larger space to accommodate that growth.

“If we meet our funding goals, we will have overcome the final obstacle to truly moving forward,” Tompkins says.

The company name – KromaTiD — is a somewhat tortured version of the word “chromatid,” a single chromosomal strand. Chromosomes have two chromatids. KromaTiD’s process involves “painting” a chromatid so that it can be tracked to see whether the entire chromosome is undergoing a change, or inversion, that could lead to a serious health condition. Similar technologies exist. But, the founders say, KromaTiD’s process is at least 10 times more effective at identifying inversions, and “dramatically increases detection certainty.”

“Chromatid paints will provide scientists with an easy-to-read test, currently a missing piece to further pinpointing certain diseases such as cancers,” said Susan Bailey, a CSU researcher and one of KromaTiD’s founders.

KromaTiD was officially launched in 2007 by Bailey and four other researchers — CSU’s Joel Bedford and Andrew Ray, Edwin Goodwin, a retired Los Alamos National Labs researcher, and Michael Cornforth, a researcher at University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

They had been collaborating on better methods for detecting inversions. The impetus for much of their research came from NASA’s desire to learn more about the effects of radiation in outer space on the chromosomes of astronauts who spend long periods on space missions. Radiation is a major cause of chromosome inversion and can result in various types of cancer, for instance.

Their work caught the attention of various funders. NASA provided a Small Business Innovation Research Award, while more dollars came from the CSU College Research Council, CSU Research Foundation, CSU Ventures, CSU Cancer Supercluster, Colorado’s Office of Economic Development Bioscience Evaluation Grant program and the National Institutes of Health. With that backing, the five researchers were able to move forward with their work and incorporate themselves as KromaTiD.

But, as many a professor with a marketable idea discovers, the business of taking the process to market was a vastly different process than refining the technology in the lab. As KromaTiD began to gather momentum, the founders decided to bring in outside management talent to guide their startup. In 2010, Tompkins was hired as president and CEO.

Tompkins came with an impressive corporate pedigree. He had health care experience, having worked with big pharma player Roche Pharmaceuticals. He had biotech on his resume — Proligo, Atrius and Eveia Medical. And, through his biotech track, he’d worked with early-stage companies. Several of the founders retain corporate titles and responsibilities, but they have essentially allowed the transition from founder-run to professional manager-run company happen fairly smoothly.

“This was pretty much the perfect alignment for me,” Tompkins says.

The founders, he says, were ready to step back, and today the team functions smoothly. Ray is still very much involved, running the research department, while the other founders are on the company’s advisory board and help with presentations and other funding matters when needed.

“Eventually many of the founders of companies we have here at CSU still want to be on faculty,” says Todd Headley, president, CSU Ventures. “KromaTiD is an example. The founders were running the company but pulled in a person to be fulltime CEO to really drive the business side.”

Since Tompkins came aboard, KromaTiD’s profile has ascended rapidly by startup standards. The company has attracted both new venture capital and plenty of media attention, particularly in biotech and startup-focused media. Meantime, a revenue stream has been created. The KromaTiD team contracts with other scientists to collaborate on challenging research projects. Although KromaTiD employs just five people now and still does business out of offices on the CSU campus, Tompkins thinks the time isn’t far off when the technology will lead to a workforce of 100 operating out of much larger digs off campus.

He foresees Northern Colorado as the company’s base for years to come. He says the nuclear biotech industry is strong here and thus offers research, funding and personnel resources — the ingredients for success in the chromosomal imaging business.

For now, KromaTiD can already lay claim to something most startups can’t:

It survived the early years, its key supporters like NASA and CSU have continued to back it, it transitioned from fledgling to professional manager-run status and it has a product for which a clear demand exists.

If the company maintains that momentum and the technology is adopted as hoped, it will be a tribute not just to dedicated research, but to a collaboration well executed.