How a local scientist became an accidental entrepreneur

Contrary to popular belief, the D.C. region can be a dynamic place to start a life science business. Many things that we are now taking for granted from the standpoint of healthcare and life extension, are happening, and were developed, here in our region. One example of that is our next guest, David Cetlin, founder of MockV Solutions, a startup that’s growing through revenue in the area.

ABERMAN: Welcome to the show.

CETLIN: Thank you very much, I’m proud to be here.

ABERMAN: Well, you’re a local boy that made good, and we love stories like that.

CETLIN: Very true! I grew up in Montgomery County, went to school at Cabin John Middle School, and then Churchill High School. I went to University of Maryland, got a masters degree at Johns Hopkins in Shady Grove. I worked for a Biotech called Human Genome Sciences, right up in the Gaithersburg area. Like you said, it’s a great place to start up a biotech. It’s funny, because when you’re in the biotech community, it’s self evident. There’s a bunch of big firms, there’s a bunch of little firms, but I guess, for the everyday commuter around here, it’s not as clear.

The federal government really has a shadow over some of the lesser industries, like the biotech industry. So, it’s a bit of a power house. We draw resources from the Universities, the federal agencies like the NIH. There’s a lot of tech transfer out of those types of labs, that spin into these companies. MedImmune, for one, and GlaxoSmithKline, but there’s also a lot of startups, too. Not so much the scale of San Francisco, but I think that’s the goal of some people in this region, to sort of bring up the area to be like a major cluster.

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ABERMAN: When we look at the national economy, San Diego, San Francisco, Bay Area, New Jersey, Princeton, these are other parts of the country where biotechnology is as important, and maybe more important, than software or other technology areas. When you say biotechnology, David, what do you mean by that?

CETLIN: That’s a good question. A lot of people don’t don’t clearly distinguish between pharmaceutical companies, like a Johnson and Johnson, and a biotech company company, like a Genentech. The major difference is that a biotech company utilizes cells to produce the therapeutic. So, if anyone’s seen Jurassic Park, remember that whole cartoon where they take you through the cloning process, and they’ve engineered these cells to to express these genes synthetically?

That’s what a biotech company does. It harnesses the power of cloning to express a therapeutic from a live cell, and a pharmaceutical company, for the most part, just synthesizes chemicals that have a therapeutic value. So, just to drive at home, the biotech is a live-organism-based process, and the pharmaceutical company is a synthetic-chemical based process.

ABERMAN: To put it in perspective for folks that maybe don’t follow this as closely, most of the cutting-edge discoveries that people are excited about these days with respect to, say, cancer therapeutics or other earth-shaking things, that is out of biotechnology. It’s the ability to manipulate things on the cellular level, right?

CETLIN: Absolutely. That’s where the excitement is. I’m sure there’s exciting things going on in the pharmaceutical world, too, so that’s nothing to to sneeze at. However, the biotech world is the hot spot, I think.

ABERMAN: We have an incredibly cutting-edge, interesting, and important industry in our midst. You mentioned MedImmune and GlaxoSmithKline, and others that are here. How does somebody like yourself get the entrepreneurial itch? How did you decide to start MockV solutions? Well, first of all, what do you do? We’ll start there.

CETLIN: So, I have to take everyone into the weeds a little bit, but I’ll relate this in the best way I can. So. if anyone has ever been to a brewery, you see these these large stainless steel tanks, and the yeast cells, live cells, are growing in these tanks, producing the ethanol that turns into beer. If you ever walk into a biotech plant, which we have around here, it’s the same exact equipment, just on a larger scale. Instead of yeast fermenting alcohol, you have mammalian cells producing these therapeutic proteins. So, it was my job before I started my company, to purify these therapeutics from this cell culture goop that had the smell, the characteristics, really, of beer.

We use filters, other components. It’s called chromatography, a means of separating out one thing from another, based on physical size, the charge, not to get too much into the chemistry. It was my job to figure out ways of separating out our product from impurities. One impurity that’s a major international is viral contamination, as you can imagine. If there’s any detection that a plant has a viral contamination, the FDA comes in and shuts it down. And this happens. I don’t want to throw out names, because I don’t want to throw any companies under the bus, but it happens. You can Google cases of this from the past. So, in order to please the regulatory agencies, the industry has to spike, into their process, live virus, to demonstrate that these filters can move large amounts should there be a contamination.

ABERMAN: Talk about playing with fire. You better be good at it.

CETLIN: Well, it’s done on a small scale.

ABERMAN: And your technology allows companies to do it in a different way, without introducing the virus?

CETLIN: Exactly. We use a non-infectious particle that mimics the characteristics of the live virus.

ABERMAN: What you’re describing to me is, when you cut through it all, you sound to me exactly like software entrepreneurs I’ve known, people who have started dry cleaners or restaurants. It sounds to me like you were in an industry, you saw a problem, and you had an “A-ha!” moment.

CETLIN: Absolutely. I didn’t set out to start a company. I thought that I’d be able to Google search, you know, non-infectious viral particles, and order something to my lab so I could use it. After I realized it didn’t exist, that’s when a couple nights of watching Shark Tank really just, you know, made me realize I should go out and do this on my own.

ABERMAN: If you were going to give a message to listeners who were thinking about taking an entrepreneurial journey, what would you describe as the most exciting thing about it for you so far?

CETLIN: The different skill sets that you have to pick up along the way to even have a chance of success. I had one skillset, and that was in the lab, doing purification. I had to pick up, from sheer necessity, accounting, marketing, sales production, all these skills that I can apply to my next phase in life. Whether this succeeds or not, who knows, but I think in the end, I’ll have developed other skill sets that can be applied.

ABERMAN: Well, I’ll tell you what, David. It’s really terrific for me, personally, to have a chance to talk with you, and I’m sure that our listeners appreciate learning that biotechnology and entrepreneurship are alive and well here in the D.C. region.

CETLIN: It certainly is! Just drive up 270, and you’ll notice it if you’re looking for it.

ABERMAN: That was David Cetlin, founder of MockV Solutions. Thanks, David.

CETLIN: Thank you.