For someone interested in moving forward with commercialization, what is a pearl of wisdom you can offer?
Byrn: A couple of things. One would be to – and this is trivial but – hard work is a key element and positive attitude and don’t give up. I’m sure you’ve heard that before but all those are things that are keys to moving ahead in a commercialization area.
We’ve had some companies that didn’t make it, but we always had one that was doing pretty well so we were able to kind of balance out. It’s a little bit of a numbers game to be successful, so you can’t take things too seriously if they don’t go well. It’s a little bit like March Madness: there’s quite a bit of madness and your picks are not going to win all the time.
Is there anything you’re unable to do now due to technology limitations that you wish you could, that you want to be able to do but the technology just hasn’t caught up to those big ideas yet?
Byrn: We’d like to use machine learning to develop formulations of drugs, and this is probably almost impossible, but this would be something that would be really interesting. You put in all the parameters of the molecules, the excipients, whether it’s going to be a capsule or a tablet, all that, and put that into a machine and it tells you what to do.
It may be possible in the future, but it may be very difficult.
In the movie of your life, who would you want to see cast in the role of you?
Byrn: This is the one I can’t answer because I don’t watch movies! I’m an entrepreneur, I don’t have time to watch movies. There’s a few movies I’ve watched that my family makes me watch but that’s about it. But I’m a huge sports fan, I do watch sports, but I don’t watch movies, I don’t have enough time.
What author would you want to write your biography?
Byrn: I don’t read that much either! I don’t know, maybe Hemingway. Hemingway used to go to Kilimanjaro in Africa and wrote a short story on the snows of Kilimanjaro. And where we go in Africa for our program is the same place. Maybe Hemingway for that reason.
What is a discovery you still hope to make in your career or what is a discovery you hope to see made in your lifetime?
Byrn: So, it would be the machine learning but another one is more technical. We’re working on a method called pair distribution function at Argonne National Labs as an X-ray method. We use that X-ray source that they built. It’s about a half a mile in diameter and it accelerates particles around this circle and produces X-rays. So, it’s high-energy physics and that’s what we built our company around, that technology. And that’s for analyzing drug formulae.
We’d like to make discovery of additional uses of that for analyzing solid materials. We already did base our company on that but if we made more discoveries, we could expand them. Our company is a research and information company, our new company, and the lead technology is work at Argonne using X-rays, high-energy X-rays.
Has there ever been a time where you felt like the underdog either professionally or personally and how have you handled that? Did that push you forward, being an underdog?
Byrn: Sure! Many, many people from Purdue are underdogs compared to MIT or some of the University of California schools, although I was at UCLA before I came here. But we make up for it because we are able to do projects that they can’t do sometimes. And I always tell this story, at MIT to do a project they have to assemble a war chest of 5 to 10 million dollars in funding before they do an experiment. Purdue would just start out and do it. So, I think the underdog image is always a factor being from the midwest, I think it’s always a factor.
So, I want to tell you two things, and these are how Purdue started the Cancer Center and the AIDS Center. I was involved in both of those. So, in 1978 I was a young assistant professor and the head of my department, Heinz Floss, and another professor named John Cassidy and a third professor named Jim Morre got the idea we would start a cancer center and so we met at night every other week for like eight weeks and then we put in proposals and eventually we got a cancer center. And that was the start of the cancer center in ‘78.
And then the same basic thing happened with the AIDS center. There was a chemistry professor named Dave Gorenstein that came over and talked me into putting it in as a PI [Principle Investigator]. So, we were doing AIDS research in the mid-80s, early on. [The AIDS Center was established from 1988 to 1993.]
Both of these fit the MIT concept, you know we didn’t assemble war chests, nothing, we just went ahead and did it.
How has your career aligned with your expectations? Is this what you imagined yourself doing as a kid?
Byrn: Completely unexpected! There’s a section of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Slip Slidin’ Away, have you ever heard that song? The last verse he says, “God has a plan and it’s not known to mortal man.” That’s kind of what happened to me, I think. An optimistic personality fell into pharmaceutical research. And those things together helped me a lot. No expectation at all that I would end up this way.
I’m gonna go back to the capsules now.