Alumnus Rothberg enlists students to solve next healthcare challenges
Jonathan Rothberg ’91 Ph.D. leans over the wooden table at Pa’s Place, a small food stand on the site of his accelerator 4Catalyzer in Guilford, Connecticut, his hands moving animatedly. Outside, just across the street, the Long Island Sound stretches into the horizon, a fishing boat tied to the long wooden dock. Rothberg is tall and lanky, dressed in the startup “uniform” of hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, and he’s excited to talk about the series of improbable events that has led him to establish his own startup incubator and the Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases — and now, a new prize to spur student innovation, the Rothberg Catalyzer Prize — on this idyllic stretch of Connecticut shoreline.
He says he has always been drawn to solve seemingly unsolvable riddles — beginning with how to give expression to the human genome with his first company, Curagen. “It was an amazing time,” he muses. “We raised over $600 million, and the technology was used by everyone from Biogen, Genentech, and Roche to even Dupont. I thought I was on top of the world.”
Then Rothberg’s son Noah was born, and immediately rushed to the Intensive Care Unit. He was struggling to breathe, but doctors couldn’t identify what was wrong. “Suddenly,” says Rothberg, “I was less interested in the map of what we had in common than in my son’s personal genomic picture.”
The problem, he says, was that existing genomic maps cost billions to access. In the ICU waiting room, Rothberg thumbed through a copy of InformationWeek and happened upon a story about the new Pentium chips, the hardware driving the world’s computers. “I realized that everyone was doing it wrong,” Rothberg says. “Intel had come up with this monolithic idea — to take an inferior technology called a transistor and put it on a single substrate.”
In that waiting room was born the idea for next-generation DNA sequencing, the innovation that led Rothberg to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama. Rothberg would take the semiconductor model and use it to sequence DNA in a massively parallel way on an ion chip at a millionth of the previous cost. The launch of his company 454 Life Sciences in turn launched a whole new industry.
Today, Rothberg is facing a new frontier in human health — artificial intelligence (AI). And 4Catalyzer, which is simultaneously developing four companies on that scenic waterfront stretch in Guilford – is positioned to take advantage of what Rothberg calls “the coming tsunami” of AI.
One of these companies, Butterfly Network, has produced the world’s first FDA-cleared, whole-body ultrasound scanner by putting an ultrasound transduceron onto a semiconductor chip, again leveraging what Rothberg refers to as the “monolithic idea” of placing complex devices on a single silicon substrate. The device, called the Butterfly iQ™, costs less than $2,000 — anywhere from 10 to 100 times less expensive than existing devices on the market — rendering it perhaps the first affordable medical imaging system for the two-thirds of the world without access to medical imaging. Butterfly is also developing artificial intelligence to help clinicians, and eventually, the patients themselves, acquire and interpret diagnostic images.
Rothberg has long funded university research related to specific drug development, but with the Rothberg Catalyzer Prize, he’s launching a more intentional experiment. “I took the idea from the Yale Healthcare Hackathon,” an event where he supported specific challenges and provided the keynote, he says. “Instead of just developing hardware, I want ideas that mix hardware and software, and I’d like it to be able to affect the life of a person.” He’s particularly interested in epilepsy, which one of his daughters has.
Continuing with his interest in the number four (referencing Group IV in semiconductor physics, which includes carbon and silicon), the Rothberg Catalyzer Prize is happening at four universities — Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and Yale University. He’s letting each university guide its own process.
At Yale, the prize is being managed by the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, alongside four other $25,000 Yale entrepreneurship prizes that all share an application. Finalists will pitch at an event called Startup Yale on April 20. While students can pitch any ideas that meet the guidelines, Rothberg says he’d love it if a team explored technology that uses the Apple Watch or Fitbit to predict seizures by detecting bodily changes and that could become more sophisticated and personalized over time. Such an application could have innumerable benefit for his daughter and others struggling with epilepsy, he says, noting that If an episode is detected early enough, epileptics can self-administer a special nasal spray and manage their condition.
“I work on things because I want to help the people I love,” Rothberg says.
And what of his son Noah, whose illness as an infant began Rothberg’s journey into parallel DNA sequencing? He’s now a freshman at Yale.
Jonathan Rothberg is one of the featured keynote speakers at the Yale Innovation Summit, Evans Hall (165 Whitney Ave., New Haven) on May 9. Hosted by the Yale Office of Cooperative Research, the event connects innovators and investors at Yale through two tracks — biotech and tech — with leading keynotes, investor panels, two pitch-offs for cash prizes, a large electronic poster session, and a closing reception at the Yale Peabody Museum. Visit the Yale Innovation Summit website for details and registration information.