Two Pore Guys gear up for a big year

Monday, February 13, 2017
Karyn Skemp

Two Pore Guys is preparing for a big year. With near market-ready technology and collaborators lining up, CEO Dan Heller and CTO William (Bill) Dunbar are excited about the startup’s future.

The company makes a hand-held digital single-molecule sensor based on solid state nanopore technology which, according to Heller and Dunbar, will have applications in medical diagnostics, agriculture, food safety and environmental monitoring.

Dunbar is a former professor of the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, where he started out in control theory, and then switched to nanopore research, applying his control theory background to applications involving genome sequencing. It was while he was at UC Santa Cruz that he developed the technology that inspired the foundational science behind Two Pore Guys (2PG) technology.

Dunbar says that he had some “great opportunities to work with brilliant people,” at UC Santa Cruz, referring to well-known researchers such as Mark Akeson, David Deamer, Kate Lieberman and Hongyun Wang, all from the Baskin School of Engineering.

When asked about his decision to leave UC Santa Cruz to start 2PG, Dunbar says, “It was very difficult to think about leaving because of my passion for research and teaching. But I was also deeply interested in the potential benefits that often come out of transformative technologies.” Clearly thriving in this startup environment, Dunbar is impressed by the diverse talent of the people who work with him. “Sometimes I stop what I’m doing and I look around at the caliber of the people working on projects that I had a role in defining, and I am wowed,” he says.

Also important to Dunbar is that he believes in the company’s mission. He wants to develop technologies that make real and positive impacts on people’s lives, whether through detecting bacteria, viruses, tumor DNA, and other harmful molecules, or by being able to test and verify the safety of food and water, or through some other application.

One project currently underway at 2PG, in collaboration with oncologists at UC San Francisco, is an application for detecting cell-free, circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) from patient liquid biopsies. The collaboration will allow 2PG to test the device’s ability to detect this specific type of DNA. If successful, it could improve the chances of survival for people with cancer by enabling earlier detection of recurrence.

For Dunbar, it’s personal. “In 2016, I personally knew three different families that had a child with cancer,” he says. “If our technology improves the chances of survival for these children, I can't think of a better problem to work on.”

​The two-pore technology grew out of Dunbar’s experience while working with Mark Akeson and Dave Deamer at UC Santa Cruz, attempting to perfect a new method of using single-pore technology to perform genome sequencing. With this method, a biological nanopore is used to capture single-stranded DNA by applying a voltage. As the DNA passes through, measurements infer each base of a DNA’s sequence. This solution became the technology behind the very successful sequencing company, Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

Coming from feedback control theory, Dunbar wanted to figure out a way to separate the sensor from the actuator, which would allow feedback control of the DNA during sensing. He essentially wanted to be able to regulate the DNA speed without interfering with the sensing mechanism. This is what led him to try two pores instead of a single pore: One pore drives the DNA, while the other pore conducts measurements. “It's not quite that simple,” says Dunbar, “since there is signal coupling during active actuation, but that’s the idea in principle.”

Heller and Dunbar started Two Pore Guys in 2011 to license the two-pore patent. In 2013 they met Dr. Trevor Morin, who at the time was a postdoctoral researcher in Phil Berman’s lab after having spent years in industry. (Professor Berman is a professor in the Biomolecular Engineering department at the Baskin School of Engineering.) “Trevor’s  background in chemical biology was the real catalyst for the applications that we’re developing now, from immunoassays to molecular diagnostics,” says Dunbar, “which incidentally don't require two-pore control in the base case.” The company will continue to develop two-pore control in these and other applications, as this approach can enable multiplexing without adding any cost overhead.

Getting 2PG to this point did not happen by accident. Dunbar met Heller in 2010, when Heller was executive director of UCSC’s Center for Entrepreneurship (C4E), which he founded in 2010. “I created C4E with the goal of helping professors bring their inventions to market,” says Heller. “Bill’s nanopore invention and its benefit to society was incredibly compelling.” Two Pore Guys became one of several companies that spun out from UCSC through the C4E program.

And the relationship between 2PG and UC Santa Cruz? Synergistic, collegial and collaborative. Dunbar and team continue to work with faculty and other researchers on campus, and later this year they’ll be funding a postdoctoral researcher from MCD Biology. They’re currently collaborating with Hongyun Wang, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Statistics in the Baskin School of Engineering, to understand how to best use applied mathematics to deal with the massive amount of data they’re generating.

And of the company’s 48 employees, 27 are UC Santa Cruz graduates. Many of these come from the Baskin School of Engineering, and others graduated from other divisions and departments on campus, including biology and chemistry, and even the arts division.

The company plans to grow this year, so it’s likely that more UC Santa Cruz grads will have the opportunity to work with Dunbar, Heller and Morin.

“We have a strong track record of hiring slugs,” says Bill. “We love them!

 Bill Dunbar   Trevor Moran  Dan Heller

Left to right: Bill Dunbar, Trevor Morin, Dan Heller

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About Two Pore Guys
Two Pore Guys (2PG) develops single-molecule sensing technologies that employ solid-state nanopores and biochemical reagents to create a versatile sample-in/results-out detection platform. 2PG’s first product is a handheld device that can use reagents from existing molecular or analyte diagnostic assays and provide accuracy and sensitivity rivaling sophisticated laboratory equipment. The battery-operated device is ideal for point-of-use applications. The easy-to-use platform is designed to sync with a smartphone or computer for further analysis and data sharing, including integration with electronic health records. Founded in 2011, the company is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. More information is available at twoporeguys.com.

About the Baskin School of Engineering

The Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz offers unique opportunities for education, research and training. With a combination of expertise, innovation and a sense of adventure, faculty and students at the Baskin School of Engineering seek new approaches to some of the most critical challenges of the 21st century, thriving within the domains of data science, genomics, bioinformatics, biotechnology, statistical modeling, high performance computing, sustainability engineering, human-centered design, communications, optoelectronics and photonics, networking and technology management. By leveraging the novel tools that often emerge from changing technologies, we have pioneered new engineering approaches and disciplines, examples of which include biomolecular engineering, computational media, and technology and information management.

For More Information

For more information about the liquid biopsy collaboration with UC San Francisco, click here.
For genomeweb’s Startup Two Pore Guys Developing Nanopore Sensor, Aims to Enable Sequencing in the Future ,
click here.