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The Magic in the Molecules

Mitch Sanders, founder of ECI Biotech, gets assistance from Estelle Houde '02, one of many WPI students and alumni employed by this growing biotech company located a few blocks from campus.

Mitch Sanders pulls cures out of a hat, engineering bioactive proteins that can heal a wounded soldier, test for lead paint, or detect bacteria in leftovers. And that's just for starters.

By Joan Killough-Miller

Mitchell Sanders is like a molecular magician, with a bundle of presto, change-o technologies up his sleeve. Want to know if those leftover cold cuts are safe to eat? Sanders can give you a storage bag with a frowning face that appears only in the presence of harmful bacteria. Got a problem with lead paint? His bag of tricks includes a rapid-diagnosis saliva test--and a wipe to remove and contain the toxic dust. He's got bandages that change color when a wound is infected, badges that sound an alarm in the presence of pathogens used in bioterrorism, and a lot of other ideas for consumer, medical and research applications.

The magic is all in the molecules--engineered protein molecules, to be specific--and Sanders makes it look so simple. The broad spectrum of applications stems from two types of bioactive proteins: Detector Proteins and Protector Proteins. From these two proprietary core technologies could come a diverse array of products to stave off everything from bedsores to antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

But the most amazing thing about Mitch Sanders is that he's as much of a wizard in the corporate boardroom as he is at the lab bench. The science of manipulating protein chains he learned largely at WPI, where he completed a master's degree in biology in 1988 and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in 1992. (He also holds a bachelor's degree from Boston University and two postdoctoral degrees from MIT's Whitehead Institute.) The art of wooing corporate partners and getting deals done he had to figure out as he went along.

Sanders has received help from WPI's Department of Management, with which he maintains close ties. He has been an active supporter of the WPI Venture Forum, where he received invaluable advice during the early days of his startup, Expressive Constructs Inc. Julian C. Sulej, visiting assistant professor of entrepreneurship, praises Sanders' ability to engage with students. "In addition," he notes, "he has provided an essential link to the rapidly developing biotech industry here in Worcester, which is assuming a critical importance in the economic development of the city, and of New England as a whole."

Sanders founded Expressive Constructs, better known as ECI Biotech, in 1998 with a $20,000 loan provided by his parents. He started the business in a Worcester three-decker, but the company grew so quickly that it was soon necessary to move it into a 3,500-square-foot space at Worcester Biotech Park. Not long after, the time came to "throw our friends and family off the board and go out and get real board members," says Sanders. From modest beginnings, ECI has managed to raise $2 million in venture capital and attract sleek corporate clients to whom ECI is providing services, including health care giant Johnson & Johnson and ESA Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass.

ECI moved closer to WPI in May, into almost double the lab space at 6 Park Avenue. Besides leaving room to grow (and space to incubate promising startups), the move gives Sanders, who holds the title of affiliate professor at WPI, better access to the university's departments and students, which are his prime source of intellectual capital.

In fact, WPI students and graduates make up more than 90 percent of the staff of ECI Biotech. (Current students employed at ECI are Barbara Appiah '04 and Raquib Mazumder '03. WPI alumni who have worked at ECI are Katie Bouffard '02, Christina Higgins '99, Estelle Houde '02, Melissa Michelon '01, Michael Salcius '98 and Melissa Wright '00.)

Explains Sanders, "WPI students have the whole package. They are very professional. They have a profound appreciation for what it takes to be successful in the real world, and they have the skills necessary to go out and get a job--the day they graduate. We don't mean to give preference, but just by virtue of having a great relationship with the departments, we seem to."

ECI has become a favored site for biology and biotech-nology students fulfilling the requirements of their Major Qualifying Projects, or MQPs, says Professor Ronald D. Cheetham, who serves as advisor for research projects with a number of off-campus scientists.

"Mitch is creative, enthusiastic and patient," Cheetham says. "Because his company is not large and flush with cash, he teaches students to think beyond the science, to consider market issues and how to be efficient."

During a recent and highly challenging project, Cheetham was impressed with the way Sanders showed his concern for the student involved, not just for the student's progress in the laboratory. "Mitch continued to encourage the student and to work on every conceivable approach until the student finally achieved good results," he says. "That commitment to students is what makes Mitch special in my experience."

"When you have this kind of simple technology that has broad-spectrum applications, you can cut it into several different pie slices and go to different fields of use to build new corporate relationships." --Mitch Sanders

Sanders says he enjoys watching skills and confidence develop in the students he mentors. Many start out as work-study employees, then complete their projects and stay on as part-time or summer employees at ECI. Project manager Maureen Hamilton '00 is now a permanent member of the staff. The mutually beneficial relationship between ECI and WPI has earned ECI a reputation as the "extension program" for the WPI Biology and Biotechnology Department.

The company's major thrust this year will be in the areas of advanced wound care products, lead detection and removal systems, and home health care applications. "We're reducing to practice all the technology we've built during the past two to four years, to a level at which we're going to have functional prototypes ready to go to corporate clients," says Sanders. The medical products, which require extensive clinical testing, will be marketed to doctors first, to build trust, before consumer versions are introduced.

Smart partnerships and diverse applications have kept ECI moving forward, even as venture capital becomes more difficult to raise. "When you have this kind of simple technology that has broad-spectrum applications, you can cut it into several different pie slices and go to different fields of use to build new corporate relationships," says Sanders. "The neat thing is that we can prioritize them based on market size and what we realistically can deliver."

While it may be tempting to focus on applications to combat terrorist threats, such as anthrax and "dirty bombs," Sanders reminds the public that there are more "mundane" hazards that pose a much greater threat to most Americans. Lead paint, for example, is still present in 64 million homes. The food pathogens Listeria monocytogenes and pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7 each caused the recalls of millions of pounds of meat and poultry in recent years (one meat packer recalled more than 27 million pounds of turkey and chicken in October after a strain of Listeria linked to at least seven deaths in the Northeast was found in its floor drains). There are two million hospital-acquired infections each year at a cost of $5 billion, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control.

"There was a lot of learning I had to do, because I was starting from scratch," Sanders admits. He got his business education by reading 30 management books and sitting down with Worcester's business leaders to pick their brains. "Worcester is such a great city," he says. "There's real dedication toward startups here that you wouldn't be able to find in a smaller city, and that would be lost in a bigger city." The WPI Venture Forum and the university's management department gave him excellent guidance. Now he's in a position to give back, by speaking to classes at Reunion and at the Forum.

The danger, for a small company like ECI, is in growing too fast or in attempting to tackle lofty applications that require capital-intensive research beyond the company's resources. "Every year we have to put four or five really good ideas on hold, because the timing's wrong, or we can't see that the market opportunity is big enough, or we haven't figured out who would be our corporate champion to bring this product to market," Sanders says. "It's actually a bit frightening. We've had to really put our blinders on and ask, as a company, 'What can we realistically get done this quarter?' We have to be focused and put the partner companies first, in terms of thinking about what their needs are and how can we make sure we give them the right deliverables."

Does Sanders the scientist ever wish he could make the business concerns just go away so he could concentrate on pure research? "It's an interesting scenario," he says, "when you come from a science background and you realize that even the best technology doesn't matter if you can't sell it right. I enjoy the business flow. You have to get in the trenches and understand how these big companies work and what their pressure points are.

"I also love the science," he continues. "Eventually there may come a time when we need a real, high-caliber CEO to run this company. But for now what we need are competent advisors to direct us in making sure that the deals are well-served and that anything we do is in the best interest of the company and the investors."

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