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Columbia Business Monthly

Midlands Biotech Firm Passing Startup Test Fast-Growing IMCS Begins International Push

Apr 03, 2017 07:56PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Richard Breen

As medicine continues to move further and further away from the universal “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” philosophy of treating illness, a Midlands biotechnology company is poised to capitalize.

Integrated Micro-Chromatography Systems LLC produces a pair of products used in the burgeoning area of medical testing. Since its founding in 2013, IMCS has grown to 25 employees, graduated from a university incubator to its own lab and headquarters, and is beginning to market its products internationally.

“They are a bona fide success story,” says Wayne Roper of SC Bio, an organization that promotes the life sciences industry in South Carolina. “That’s what we want to see happen over and over.”

Entrepreneurial Path

The IMCS story begins just a few years ago, with three scientists who met at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Qian Wang is a chemistry professor, Dr. William Brewer is a research assistant and teacher, and Dr. Andrew Lee earned his doctorate from USC while studying under Wang.

Lee was also “on the entrepreneurial path,” as he describes it, searching for a scientific breakthrough that could be commercialized.

“At a research university, they have lots of great ideas, but not all of those ideas are financially viable,” he says.

Brewer, a forensic toxicologist by trade, had come up with a fast, efficient way to separate chemicals in complex body fluids for analysis. Brewer approached Lee to expand the patented technology for biological products as well.

So in January 2013, Brewer, Lee and Wang (who had collaborated with Lee on a previous startup) founded IMCS and set up shop in the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator. The company soon graduated from the program and outgrew its lab space.

“To go from zero to a new facility in four years is high speed,” Roper says.

In addition to their own seed capital, the founders attracted biotech veteran Mark Hanna, who had been involved in Aetna’s $500 million acquisition of Medicity, a health care IT firm.

“I met Bill Brewer probably seven or eight years ago,” Hanna says. “I was really interested in what Bill was doing. Bill introduced me to Andrew and Qian Wang. Due to my background, I had a clear understanding of where health care was going. I got on board.”

On a recent tour of the 9,000-square-foot IMCS facility in Irmo, Hanna, who serves as the company’s chief revenue officer, dons a white lab coat and describes how IMCSzyme is used for urine testing. Once a drug test comes back positive, the test must be confirmed.

“To do a confirmation, the urine has to be broken down,” Hanna says. “We have developed the enzyme that enables the urine to be broken down.”

IMCS believes its enzyme production method results in a purer product that provides more definitive test results. The market has responded.

IMCS is partnering with local universities to expand its R&D efforts and develop new capabilities related to personal health care. Meanwhile, it is reaching out to potential customers in places such as Australia, China, Dubai and Norway.

“We’re confident we’re going to do well in those markets,” Hanna says.

IMCS is also learning the U.S. government procurement process in an attempt to sell to organizations such as the military and Transportation Security Administration.

While IMCSzyme is used by clinical medical centers and forensic toxicology labs, the customer base for its other product, INTip Chemistry, is pharmaceutical companies and academic centers. Company literature describes INTip Chemistry as helping research scientists clean and catalogues biomolecules such as DNA and proteins found in body fluids.

Precision Medicine

It’s one of many steps the scientific community is taking toward “precision medicine,” in which custom treatments are designed based on one’s biological, metabolic and disease makeup.

“Each person is different – the doctors know it,” Lee says.

Technological advances are making more and more data available for each patient, but Lee says analyzing all that new data can be time-consuming and complex.

“How do we process that data? How do we do it faster?” he asks. “It is a huge challenge.”

As IMCS works in that space, some of the challenges normally associated with a startup have been less so. While it’s a biotech company, IMCS’ products don’t have to go through the Federal Drug Administration’s approval processes, which can drain a startup of both time and money. The company says it’s been profitable since 2014.

“The goal of every business is cash flow,” SCBio’s Roper points out. “When you have that, you have a lot of options.”

As its list of more than 300 clients grows, IMCS’ $4 million investment in its headquarters, which opened in October 2016, may not have been enough of a gamble.

“We should have bought a bigger building,” Hanna says, laughing.

And there’s a new product being developed that can be used to test for human growth hormone. Potential customers in the sports world spring to mind. If successful, a bigger building could be coming sooner rather than later.