Visionary David Walt

Accomplished entrepreneur, researcher, and academic

The multitalented David Walt embodies a rare combination of entrepreneurial skill, research ability, and passion for science education. Walt, who is the Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor, applies micro- and nanotechnology to solve urgent biological problems. Technologies that have come out of his laboratory include DNA arrays, single-molecule detection methods, and medical diagnostic methods.

David Walt is also one of the most successful life science entrepreneurs of the past decade.  In 1998 he co-founded Illumina, which now employs 2,100 people and has a stock market valuation of over $6 billion (NASDAQ: ILMN).  In 2007 Walt started venture capital–backed Quanterix, envisioning that its technology could someday be a driving force in the global diagnostics industry.

Making a multi-billion-dollar company

Illumina was founded with venture funding from the CW Group, which negotiated an exclusive license from Tufts to a technology (now known as BeadArray) that had been developed in the Walt laboratory.  Illumina completed its initial public offering in July 2000, began offering single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotyping services in 2001, and launched its first system—the Illumina BeadLab—in 2002.

Today Illumina is one of the bigger success stories in San Diego’s biotech cluster.  Now offering a portfolio of leading-edge sequencing and array-based technologies, Illumina makes studies possible that were not even imaginable just a few years ago. Illumina’s revolutionary tools speed advances in disease research, drug discovery, and molecular testing for the clinic, and they are being used by researchers in academic, government, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology settings around the globe. Ninety percent of all genetic analyses (genotyping and sequencing) have been performed using Illumina instruments.

The royalty stream from Illumina helps academic labs at Tufts continue groundbreaking research. Walt may have another significant success with Quanterix if it delivers a technology platform for the antibody-based diagnostics market, which has an estimated value of $11 billion.

Next-generation disease diagnostics

Quanterix, exclusive licensee of a broad intellectual property portfolio developed initially in David Walt’s laboratory, is developing a diagnostic platform for measuring individual proteins at a much higher sensitivity than can be obtained by standard ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay).  In 2008, Quanterix raised a $15-million financing from Arch Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Flagship Ventures.

Trace quantities of signature proteins can be early biomarkers of diseases such as cancer; unfortunately, at least 75% of the proteins in blood are undetectable through current approaches. Quanterix’s single molecule array (SiMoA) assays are at least 1,000-fold more sensitive than ELISAs, which are the current gold standard.

Quanterix garnered a lot of attention in 2010 from a publication in Nature Biotechnology showing that its SiMoA assay was 1,700 times more sensitive than the ELISA at spotting prostate specific antigen (PSA).  Each year the PSA test is used to screen about 7 million men in the U.S. for cancer, and results from the test lead to 200,000 surgeries annually to remove the prostate. Quanterix is developing a PSA test to provide early detection of prostate cancer recurrence in men who have undergone surgery.

The first commercial release of the SiMoA technology for the life sciences research market is scheduled for 2013, and Quanterix expects to begin sales of the system with FDA-approved tests for PSA and others in 2014. Quanterix is currently providing selected academic and industrial scientists access to its platform technology.

Bringing the thrill of scientific discovery to the classroom

While Walt is at the forefront of scientific innovation and entrepreneurship, he strives to bring the excitement of real-world science to the classroom. In 2006, Walt was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor—a distinction for which he received a $1-million grant to impart the thrill of scientific discovery to students.

The HHMI awards, given to 20 researchers nationwide, followed a search at 100 leading universities to find those who strive through teaching to ignite the scientific spark in a new generation of students. Walt used the $1-million grant to mobilize undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates to reach out to K-12 students.

In a continuation of his work to share chemistry with students of all ages, Walt was awarded $50,000 from the Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation. Walt’s Chemistry Organized Outreach Program (CO−OP) was one of 13 projects to receive funding in 2010. The CO−OP provided local, economically disadvantaged public high schools with greater access to chemistry and biology research. Tufts University students involved in the CO−OP helped develop the project and attended experiments at high schools in the local communities surrounding the Boston and Medford campuses.  The CO−OP fulfilled its overall goal of generating excitement about chemistry, and Walt hopes this kind of outreach will boost the health of the scientific enterprise. Walt recently received an NIH SEPA grant for $1.25 million to continue working with high schools to bring research-based sequencing experiments to the classroom.