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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

Where Science Meets Society

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The IGB’s Fox Family Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate Program has inspired one participant to found a company with a mission to create computational tools for biomedical researchers.

Last spring, Joe Peterson participated in the program while finishing his PhD in chemistry at the University of Illinois. He always knew he wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and when he heard about the program, he thought it was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the business side of product development.

Co-founders Joe Peterson, left, and John Cole, Jr. of SimBioSys, Inc.
Co-founders Joe Peterson, left, and John Cole, Jr. of SimBioSys, Inc.

“I took (the program) wanting to do some networking,” he said. “But it turned out to be quite a bit more.”

The 13-week program introduces academics to entrepreneurship and has participants create their own business plan. Visiting speakers from industry and various campus resources cover topics such as finances, intellectual property, marketing, product development and more. Students are introduced to campus resources that can help them start their own business.

“It goes through how to design a plan for your business,” Peterson said. “How to think about your idea, how to go about discovering who your customers are.”

After completing the program, he decided to use what he learned to co-found SimBioSys, Inc. with biophysicist John Cole, Jr. Their company is now a tenant at EnterpriseWorks, a startup incubator at the University’s Research Park that Peterson learned of through the certificate program.

The idea behind SimBioSys, Inc. stems from Peterson and Coles’s doctoral research in computational biology in the lab of chemistry professor Zaida Luthey-Schulten, who is part of the IGB’s Biocompexity theme. Their research fueled their passion for creating software that aids scientific discovery. As a result, their company’s mission is to create computational technologies that analyze how tissues interact.

“We’re trying to design computational tools that allow you to peer into (diseased) tissues to see exactly how all the cells are interacting,” Peterson said.

Current techniques for analyzing these interactions are limited. Technologies to image tissues at high resolution, such as mass spectrometry, destroy the tissue and can only capture a single moment in time. Other technologies, such as MRI or PET scans, can show several points in time, but the images are low resolution. SimBioSys is creating a way to view interactions in tissues with high resolution at many time points.

The way they’re doing this is by making computer simulations that combine several types of data being generated by the -omics revolution — genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, and proteomics — with low resolution images from scans such as from an MRI. By analyzing all aspects of the interactions that occur within tissues, they hope to gain a better understanding of how they behave and what underlying features give rise to disease.

They plan to first investigate breast cancer, though the technology will be applicable to diseases of all types.

Peterson sees the Fox Family Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate Program as integral to his appreciation of the business side of entrepreneurship that is now a part of his everyday life.

“I’d recommend (the program) to any graduate student,” he said. “I didn’t really respect the business side before taking it — there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

After further development of their prototype, they hope their technology will be picked up by pharmaceutical companies and eventually become a part of the drug development process.

“Ideally, we would like to partner with some drug companies to help them develop a drug. That’s the ultimate goal,” Peterson said. “What John and I really want to do is make an impact in that area.”

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Written By
Emily Scott
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SimBioSys, Inc.