Lawrence Steinman is professor of neurology and neurological sciences, pediatrics and genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and also a serial founder and entrepreneur of life science ventures—he is cofounder of no less than five companies. His research in multiple sclerosis and autoimmunity was pivotal in the development of the blockbuster drug Tysabri (natalizumab). At the 2010 San Francisco SciCafe, Steinman presented data showing that T helper 1 (Th1) and Th17 cell responses determine the efficacy of interferon beta treatment in experimental autoimmune encephalomylelitis mice. Nature Biotechnology discussed his latest venture with him, the Stanford University spin-out Atreca.

Nature Biotechnology: How did Atreca come about?

Lawrence Steinman: I had known cofounder Tito Serafini, a former Berkeley professor and seasoned biotech entrepreneur, for years before approaching him with the idea for an antibody discovery company that later became Atreca. Bill Robinson, a Stanford colleague and collaborator, joined with us at the very end of 2011, and the large-scale multiplex analysis technology from his laboratory eventually became the foundational platform for Atreca.

Initially, Stanford only granted us exclusive intellectual property options for a limited time, so with that guarantee, as well as investment from Bill, Tito and me, other angels and a seed investor [Mission Bay Capital], we developed our business plans and sought partners and additional financial backers. The actual license was executed at the end of June 2012, when we obtained an investment commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation [in Seattle], which enabled Atreca to effectively launch operations. Although our first collaborations have been in the vaccine R&D space, I envisioned the company with a pipeline of cancer therapeutics and other assets in development or partnered.

Which are the most immediate commercial applications for Atreca's platform technology?

LS: Atreca's novel immune-repertoire capture technology overcomes the major limitation in multitranscript analysis of single cells at high-throughput using next-generation sequencing, which is the lack of fidelity and quality. Although thousands of single cells are processed simultaneously, the technology generates sequence data that are unbiased, error-corrected and contamination-free so that clonality is maintained and expression of the sequences leads to functional proteins.

The initial application has been in describing the immune response in a patient, by generating, for example, the sequences of natively paired heavy and light antibody chains of individual B cells.

Over the past two years, the company has overcome a number of technical hurdles inherent to moving a new technology out of a university lab and industrializing it, such that multiple big pharmaceutical and other groups are now collaborating with Atreca. I believe that the future technical hurdles are minor in comparison.

What lessons have you learned about academic technology translation?

LS: If one considers the 'lean startup' model espoused in the IT space, the most salient concept that translates to biotech is one of engaging early with customers and partners, as opposed to institutional investors. While we in academia have great ideas about how to apply and develop our discoveries, what matters more is what those willing to pay for the discoveries would like to buy. I have learned much by engaging with potential partners and customers very early in the process of commercializing discoveries. Because the biotech institutional investor space has changed so much—fewer groups with less capital—one cannot rely on traditional models of using investment to translate and commercialize discoveries. One's discoveries need to be almost immediately appealing to potential partners. When I think about translational possibilities from my lab, I'm drawing on my many years of experience in biotech—what technologies, at the moment, are likely to find customers or partners, as well as investors, and fill an unmet need for patients.