Former Lab Rat Looks to Modernize Drug Softwareby
At the age of 7, while other kids were fiddling with Legos, Jonathan Hirsch found himself at a university lab learning the basics behind pipetting fluids and making gels. Five years later, Hirsch began conducting pharmacology experiments. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when much of your immediate family is made up of university researchers and doctors performing clinical trials. “I’ve just always loved doing research,” Hirsch, now 27, says.
As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Hirsch focused on biology and then later honed his neuroscience chops while getting a master’s degree from Stanford University. He also worked at Avocet Polymer Technologies and Abbott Laboratories—a pair of pharmaceutical companies. Along each step of his journey, Hirsch grew frustrated by the antiquated technology tools at the disposal of researchers and doctors. They kept track of how a new drug was progressing through a trial using Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides. When new results arrived, the researchers hopped back onto their computers to update information manually. “There was just such poor use of information,” Hirsch says.
In 2008, Hirsch decided to leave the laboratory and start a company to fix the issues he saw. He and a handful of young, like-minded scientists and engineers formed Syapse, a startup that would create a cloud computing service aimed at biotech and pharmaceutical companies and scientists and doctors. The goal was to provide these groups a contemporary way to manage data gathered through experiments and trials and to analyze that information.
“All of the people in our company are young scientists who grew up with Facebook, Basecamp, and LinkedIn,” Hirsch says. “We know what modern Web software can do to help us organize our lives. The data in this case is so complex and numerous and interrelated that you need a true platform to deal with it.”
At its core, Syapse has built a layer of software that helps organizations collect and categorize data from a wide variety of scientific instruments and to structure the data in a common way. It then sells different services tailored for specific tasks on top of that core product. Earlier this summer, Syapse began peddling one of the first additional services—called Discovery—aimed at collecting and analyzing genetic data. “A scientist can do research on a set of patients and specimens and set up a sequencing workflow that will keep track of the results,” Hirsch says. “He can then tie the results into studies on related gene sequences and generate reports based on the data.”
It’s early days for Syapse, to be sure, with the software used mostly in private trials so far. Dozens of universities have received access to the service for free as part of the company’s plan to train young scientists on the software before they go into the business world. Hirsch adds there are more than a handful of corporate users as well. The software starts at about $18,000 a year for a small startup and can go up to $500,000 a year for large companies with lots of people tapping into the service.
In his wildest dreams, Hirsch sees Syapse turning into something akin to the Windows of the drug world. He’d like the service to connect companies developing the drugs all the way through to the doctors dishing out the pills, creating an unbroken chain of data and analysis. “Today, doctors don’t have a tool yet that can show the history of a patient alongside their genomics information and drug options and the results from relevant studies,” Hirsch says. “So let’s bring together those pieces of data in a fashion that makes it possible to make a better decision.”
Syapse, with six employees, is in the process of seeking its Series A round of funding. It has already raised some money from angel investors, including its Chief Executive Officer Glenn Winokur, a software industry veteran. Hirsch, the company’s president, has largely paid his own way during the years spent developing the initial product. “I took all the money I earned from the earlier stuff and put it into Apple stock,” he says. “That’s how I support myself. I was fortunate.”