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Tom Cohen is founder of Nanopore Diagnostics, a St. Louis life science startup that’s part of a new wave of companies bringing nanotechnology tools to today’s challenges. They’re creating a clinical testing device to dramatically reduce the time it takes to identify the best treatment for a bacterial infection. This means faster and better care that doesn’t contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistant infections—important and disruptive qualities for today.
What’s the problem or opportunity you’re addressing?
Antibiotic misuse. Doctors today have to guess on which antibiotic to use for an infection because it takes days to know what’s infecting a patient. That causes the wrong antibiotics to be prescribed, which is expensive and can lead to them being ineffective as bacteria become resistant to them.
What is a nanopore?
It’s a super small hole, nanometer range in diameter. We count molecules as they either block or flow through holes that small. For each thing we want to detect, we have a different probe molecule that binds to it and pulls it through our nanopore. We count how many probes go through the hole.
How does it perform diagnostics?
Our device utilizes nanopores to detect bacteria in very small quantities of liquid. We have a different probe molecule that bonds to each different bacteria, fungi or potentially even viruses that can infect us. Your doctor will be able to know exactly what is attacking your body while you’re still in his or her office.
Tell us about the picture you sent for use with this story—what’s interesting to you about it?
This is a picture of me holding our prototype device, it’s interesting to me how a powerful technology capable of providing so much capability can be so small.
Where do you get inspiration?
Investors really want to know this these days. I have a personal connection to what we’re doing—I contracted a permanent autoimmune disorder from taking an antibiotic that I didn’t need for an ear infection years ago. Plus it’s been a life goal since my sophomore year in college to develop something that gets used clinically by a lot of doctors. It was in a pre-med program, taking medicinal chemistry when I realized that.
What prepared you for what you’re doing now?
I did a PhD and postdoc in developing diagnostic technology at Washington University. Beyond that, accelerators like Sq1 and Pipeline helped me have the confidence to stop seeing myself as an academic and start seeing myself as an entrepreneur.
Who’s a person in your past that helped you become who you are? What did they do? Do they know their influence on you?
Rob Mitra, my postdoc research mentor, who taught me technology development. He also understood why a person might want to leave academia and go into entrepreneurship. Dave Smoller (currently with BioGenerator) has also been very supportive and generous with his time—he’s done it before, he’s started three or four companies, he’s a no bull guy, which you need.
When have you failed and what did you learn?
All of the biz plan competitions we’ve won, we lost at least once before. With the Olin Cup, I did it the first time as a scientific presentation. When we won, I pitched like a business, like a show we wanted people to buy into.
What is the thing most people don’t get at first about what you do?
When I’m working in the lab, I’ve got earbuds in and am listening to sports talk radio. I think people are always taken aback when they see that I’m social, I like to talk sports and have a beer. People assume scientists don’t have interests like that.
Who are your favorite artists, authors and musicians?
Kurt Vonnegut—Galapagos is my favorite—it’s a really cool look at evolution from a non-scientist, creative and literary savant . Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, has a very interesting process of how he creates weird and eccentric characters from interviews of real-life people he runs into. My favorite band is Phish, I also like Wilco and the Avett Brothers. I love seeing talented people create in front of me, that’s why I like Phish, they don’t even create a set list. They just show up and go.
Favorite guilty pleasure?
Craft beer. A good bourbon-aged Imperial Stout or an IPA. Perennial Abraxis is a local favorite. Barbeque, too, I like Pappy’s and Salt + Smoke.
What current problem would you like to solve?
A cool use for our technology we’ve just learned about is in aquaculture, because currently, it requires lots of antibiotics to keep the fish in a pen healthy. It would be really cool if our tech could be used to manage the health and antibiotics in those kinds of situations—help feed the world.
What’s your go-to tool for the tough stuff—those that don’t get what you’re doing and why?
Adversity motivates me, but I like it best on a Friday so I have time to process. I think it’s important to embrace it, to vent with friends and move on—it’s how you learn and grow.
How can people follow you?
We’re @NanoporeDx on Twitter.