Proteoplex, Scinomix and Navigen each find a niche

By Virginia Baldwin Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

June 18, 2002


Doors are opening, say the founders of three companies that emerged when Incyte Genomics Inc. closed its St. Louis operations in December.

Each of the companies has found a different niche, serving drug research and other biotech operations. And each has found help from regional economic-development groups.

"We're cranking away," said David Smoller, chief executive and founder of Proteoplex Inc., which is developing a new product and technology for biomedical research.

Proteoplex is moving this week to new digs, 381 Marshall Avenue in Webster Groves. The two-story building, with 11,000 square feet, is in an industrial park on the former Petrolite Chemical Corp. site.

Meanwhile, Nigel Malterer and his fellow co-founders of Scinomix LLC are putting together an application for a Small Business Innovative Research, or SBIR, grant.

Scinomix, which develops robotics for biotech research, had intended to make money from consulting and grow slowly. Then the three principals had a brainstorm while driving to a trade show in Chicago.

They applied for a patent on their idea -- which they're holding pretty close to the vest -- and decided "if we're going to make a success of this device, we'll need to seek external funding," Malterer said.

At the third startup, Navigen LLC, Chief Executive Amy Malterer is back from maternity leave. She and her husband, Nigel Malterer of Scinomix, recently had their second child.

Navigen is about to complete the first phase of a research contract with a major East Coast agricultural biotech company, and it expects to negotiate an extension. It expects to make a profit its first year - and pay salaries. "Well, small salaries," she said.

A second contract fell through when the potential client didn't get the funding it needed. "We'll be looking for another customer," she said. "The contracts we get are pretty high-dollar, with a lot of revenue per customer. We probably wouldn't take on more than two at a time."

The St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association says 390 life-sciences enterprises operate in the region, employing more than 22,000.

Smoller started Proteoplex in a small lab and office at the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise in Creve Coeur.

He started and ran the gene sequence-cloning business that became the base of Incyte's operations in St. Louis. At its height, it employed 250 people.

Smoller wanted to start faster this time, and Nidus helped him do it. Besides providing ready lab space, the business incubator helped freshen his contacts and coached him on making presentations to investors.

Proteoplex has raised more than $1.5 million from angel investors. Last month, it was one of 21 companies to present at the annual InvestMidwest Venture Capital Forum.

The company hopes to begin making its first product by year's end. It has nine employees, including the founders. It got equipment and patent licenses from Inctye in return for an equity position and a member on Proteoplex's board.

Proteoplex is working on an idea that started at Incyte - to take the technology for making electronic chip circuitry and apply it to protein research. The first product it is developing would combine millions of chemical reactions on proteins into one microarray - a tray holding tiny wells that substitute for test tubes - to test for inflammation. The miniaturization would allow researchers to cut the time and cost of protein research to 10 percent of what present methods require.

Scinomix and Navigen share labs and offices at 4069 Wedgeway Court in Earth City.

Scinomix is the first area company to get help from a new federally funded program to encourage small companies to apply for SBIR grants.

Wayne Harvey, hired last month to promote the grant program, talked about it at a meeting sponsored by RCGA, and Scinomix execs jumped at the chance.

Last week, they accompanied Harvey to a conference in Washington that brought federal agencies that award the grants together with small companies that seek them.

"He's opened our eyes to what is out there," Nigel Malterer said.