Chad Mirkin: Thinking Big

The head of Northwestern University's International Institute of Nanotechnology, Chad A. Mirkin is a giant in the realm of the very, very small

Chad A. Mirkin is a giant in the realm of the very, very small. He's the head of Northwestern University's International Institute of Nanotechnology in Evanston, Ill.,, one of the premier nanoscience research centers in the world, with $350 million in funding and infrastructure at its disposal. He's the winner of the highly regarded Feynman Prize and the world's No. 1 cited nanoresearcher, according to the Nanomedicine Lab Registry. He holds more than 300 patents and is a Northwestern professor of chemistry, medicine, and materials science and engineering.

All of those accomplishments, however, haven't amounted to a hill of beans for his investors. Mirkin took the first company he co-founded, Nanosphere (NSPH), public last fall. The startup uses minute particles of gold to detect specific genes and proteins involved in human diseases. Shares opened at $14, leapt to $22 a few days later—and then began drifting lower. The stock slipped to less than $7 in early October.

The initial public offering succeeded in netting the company more than $100 million and gave Mirkin himself a few million on paper. But the experience highlighted how difficult it is to take concepts and techniques at the extreme cutting edge of science and turn them into something marketable. Indeed, Nanosphere has yet to make a profit. It lost $18.5 million through the first half of 2008, after a $53.1 million loss in 2007. But Mirkin isn't worried. "This is a company that is in a marathon not a sprint," he says. "It's got a tremendous number of technologies that have been licensed from Northwestern, all of which can lead to important advantages in diagnostics."

In one regard, at least, Nanosphere's future does look bright. Unlike many other biotech-related firms, the Northbrook (Ill.) company has a real product to sell. It has received approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for a genetic sensitivity test to the blood-thinner warfarin, known under its commercial name Coumadin. It also has tests in advanced development for cystic fibrosis, influenza, and human papillomavirus. The company hopes its assays will be available within three years and estimates the new markets could be worth $1 billion altogether.


Mirkin, 44, is far from the stereotype of a lab nerd. Tanned and wearing a white button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he is genial as he talks about working with objects no more than a couple of hundred atoms across. Raised in Meyersdale, Pa., about 90 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Mirkin went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., with the thought of becoming a doctor. He changed his mind after observing his first surgery, a child having her cleft pallet repaired. The operation, he recalls thinking, "is the most repulsive thing I've seen in my life." A summer research program turned him on to chemistry instead.

He earned a PhD in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University in 1989 and became an assistant professor at Northwestern two years later. Mirkin made his name by inventing dip-pen nanolithography in 1999, a technology that allows scientists to build everything from highly miniaturized electronic devices to protein nanoarrays that test for diseases like HIV at much higher speeds and sensitivities than conventional diagnostics. In 2000 he took over as director of the Institute of Nanotechnology. "Chad Mirkin is just a star; he's exceptionally smart and exceedingly clever," says Joseph DeSimone, director of the National Cancer Nanotechnology Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Chad is just sort of an icon nationally in that regard."

Mirkin confesses he is enthralled by nano. "Everything old becomes new when you miniaturize it," he says, noting that gold changes color when it's miniaturized, turning to red or green.

"The fun part of science is making a material that the planet has never seen before. It's a drug—you keep coming back for more."

Money Challenges

The business side has been less fun. Raising money has been a constant challenge. He got $50 million for Nanosphere from Chicago's Lurie Investments. Once the company grew to 100 people, Bain Capital of Boston chipped in $47 million.

Mirkin still serves on the board of directors of Nanosphere but has turned it over to professional managers, led by Chief Executive William P. Moffitt III. Meantime, Mirkin is busy starting and developing other companies like his second venture, NanoInk. Its focus is commercializing dip-pen nanolithography (DPN) and nanoscopic labeling schemes, which are currently being used by pharmaceutical companies to etch minute ID information on individual pills to fight counterfeiting. In addition, DPN and the Nscriptor tool based upon it are used by researchers to create arrays of proteins and genes consisting of thousands of nanoscopic spots that can be used to develop powerful new disease detection systems for medical doctors, to create and study tiny circuitry where the individual components are made of molecules, and to uncover some of the secrets of important processes like cell differentiation and viral infectivity. He and his venture partners have helped build the company up to about 50 employees, though there are no immediate plans for an IPO.

Back in the lab, his research group is working on creating nanoscale compounds that would travel to and enter tumor cells in the body and selectively kill them without causing the adverse side effects of conventional cancer medication. Though he insists he's more a researcher than an entrepreneur, his business experience has given him a new perspective on his lab work. "I think it's made me a better scientist," he says. "I realize how big of a gap there is between a discovery made at the bench and all that has to happen before it becomes a commercial product."

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