Pinus taeda L.
(Loblolly pine)

A microarray allows scientists to conduct simultaneous experiments on thousands of genes.

The latest example of the success of NC State's technology transfer model, ArrayXpress, Inc., is taking research intended to improve the loblolly pine's paper producing potential and using it to help develop future generations of drugs, healthier animals, and bioterrorism defense.

Dr. Len van Zyl, a research assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources, was using microarrays to screen gene sets for a National Science Foundation project to assist in the production of faster-growing pines that require less chemical processing to manufacture paper. Microarrays, chip-like devices that contain hundreds or thousands of genes, are commonly used to target genes of interest. During his experiments, van Zyl gradually developed his own system that optimized the protocol for conducting such experiments.

When other researchers and companies began asking if they could use his system, van Zyl asked the Office of Technology Transfer whether he could provide his technology to them. "I didn't worry about competition; I just wanted to produce good data," says van Zyl, a researcher so purely motivated by science that he is also trying to genetically resurrect the mountain kwagga, a zebra-like animal from his native South Africa that has been hunted into extinction.

Dr. Len van Zyl inserts slides containing gene probes into a microarray spotter in the ArrayXpress lab.

Tech transfer officials quickly nixed the notion of a giveaway and put van Zyl in touch with the HiTEC program in the College of Management, which asked entrepreneur-in-residence Michael Zapata to see whether a market opportunity existed to build a company around the microarray system. Zapata assembled a management team by tapping his business contacts and NC State alumni like John Woodall, who left Deloitte & Touche to become chief financial officer. They wrote a business plan for the operation, licensed van Zyl's technology from the University, rented lab space in the Technology Incubator on Centennial Campus, and began lining up customers for the company, which they dubbed ArrayXpress.

"It's a tremendous benefit to me as a researcher to have such business assistance so I don't have to worry about that side of things," van Zyl says. Being in the incubator is not only convenient--it's just upstairs from his faculty office--it also gives the company the chance to collaborate with other researchers.

Now that ArrayXpress has proven its business model by landing several large customers, executives have their sights set on raising money that would allow the company to break into new markets, from drug discovery to plant and animal breeding to biodefense. Any technology developed through microarray screening services could be marketed by ArrayXpress later as a stand-alone product, such as test kits to pinpoint the source of cancers for faster treatment, Zapata says. "If NC State didn't have an entrepreneur-oriented administration, this company would have been dead before it started," he says. "Administrative encouragement to try something new is key."

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