Faraz Choudhury and Daniel Benjamin began their work together in an electrical engineering lab as graduate students at UW–Madison. With their group, they conducted research on plasmas for semiconductor fabrication. The target of the team’s research was refocused when professor Mike Susman joined the lab. His background in biochemistry informed his contributions to their research. He suggested using the plasmas to label proteins for structural characterization. This evolved into combining knowledge in biochemistry and electrical engineering to conduct drug discovery, working with the main focus of developing innovative therapeutics for diseases that are currently difficult to address with available treatments on the market. This research allowed Choudhury and Benjamin to conceptualize the idea for their company, Immuto Scientific, which they would go on to co-found together.
Immuto Scientific uses protein footprinting technology to revolutionize drug discovery and therapeutic development. The process uses protein samples sent from patients and creates an automated protein analysis, allowing drug developers to determine the protein structure faster. Immuto Scientific’s technology develops detailed, native-state structures at amino acid-level resolution for any protein or peptide quicker and more accurately than the industry standard.
With D2P’s mentorship, Choudhury and Benjamin have expanded Immuto Scientific technology to be used commercially and across a growing range of illnesses and patients. They now serve their company together as Immuto Scientific’s CEO and CTO, respectively. We asked the pair about their experience creating a startup within the UW–Madison community and his perspective on entrepreneurship:
Could you tell us about the project you are currently working on with D2P?
Our main focus is drug discovery. We work on small molecule drugs, antibodies, and even protein degraders which are a newer modality of therapeutics. We also work with a lot of different disease areas. Oncology has been a significant focus, as well as neurological and infectious diseases. We are currently developing novel therapeutics for diseases that are difficult to treat with therapeutics that are available in the market.
How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned along the way?
D2P was very instrumental in the early stages. When we conceptualized the idea and began considering commercial applications, we looked at business development resources at the university that were available and went to D2P. We worked with the mentors and participated in several of the training programs.
This experience gave us an understanding of how to best commercialize the product from the university and start a company around it. The programs gave us insight into how to construct a business plan, visualize the application of the product in the market, and anticipate who will occupy the customer base.
What other entrepreneurial resources or programs have provided guidance to you?
I’ve taken advantage of pretty much all of the Madison area resources for entrepreneurship. This includes the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, Merlin Mentors, Madworks, GBeta, and the Center for Technology and Commercialization (CTC). These organizations have been very helpful for us. There are many resources within the University community.
What is your current focus with the company?
Our current focus with the company is growth. Our company is growing pretty quickly in terms of the number of people on our team and the number of clients we work with. Our real goal is to help our clients advance their drug discovery programs and accelerate the process. We’ve been focusing on continuing to grow the people we have within the company and bringing on additional talent to increase the scale of our company.
What drives you and why is this project important to you personally?
We get a lot of satisfaction from working on new therapeutics, which will hopefully one day reach sick patients and help with diseases that are currently very tough to treat. We always keep our goal in mind: is to continuously improve the efficiency of this therapeutic so that eventually it will reach the patient as quickly as is possible. That drives us and is one of those things that helps us get out of bed every morning.
What advice would you give to other campus innovators that are just starting our with exploring the potential for their ideas?
I would return to the idea of taking advantage of all of the resources that are available in UW–Madison and the greater Madison community. There are many really useful resources that are really useful. When you have an idea, you need a lot of guidance in terms of how to validate it and develop it into a commercial product with a business model. Almost all of these resources are available for free, so I would highly encourage everyone to take advantage of them.
Is there an experience during the development of your project that surprised you or had a particularly strong impact on your direction? What did you learn from it, or how did it change your thinking?
Conducting customer discovery interviews was the most critical thing we did in the process of starting a company. It made us pivot at least five times. It’s one of those situations where you have an idea, and you think it is the best idea in the world, but then you talk to a customer and find out that it may not be. This feedback will then direct you to something adjacent, which might be the best idea in the world. The best thing you can do is talk to as many customers as possible. We did 200 interviews before ever starting the company, but we still do customer discovery interviews every day as we launch new products and think of new business ideas. Learning how to conduct these interviews has been the most important thing.