The Debrief: Noel Goddard, doyenne of detection

Goddard Labs founder Noel Goddard.

No, she’s not related to rocketing pioneer Robert Goddard. Besides a surname, she has nothing in common with former OSI Pharmaceuticals CEO Colin Goddard (though she’s a fan). And her company is not the biz-tech support firm Goddard Labs of Oregon, another common mistake. But as chief executive of Calverton-based biotech enterprise Goddard Labs – where novel molecular diagnostics set the tone – Noel Goddard takes a scientific back seat to no one, and enjoys a front-row perspective on Long Island’s innovation economy. As she sees it:

EAST, DRINK AND BE WARY: Food testing, in its current state, is lacking, and food outbreaks occur because current bacterial-detection practices aren’t working. It’s important to understand why, considering how advanced our technologies are for detecting bacteria.

ON TRACK: One reason is the regulatory practices aren’t as stringent as they could be, though new regulations are coming through the Food Safety Modernization Act (of 2011), the first legislation addressing food-safety issues at this level in over 70 years. Among the first provisions are rules overseeing tracking issues. You can imagine, with so much food coming in and out of the country and moving from one end of the country to the other, tracking issues are extremely important.

FARM FRESH: The second group of major provisions coming out are procedural safety rules, which I’m particularly interested in. This will start standardizing the way farms test for bacteria in fresh produce. The testing right now is extremely slow and relatively expensive.

SLOW COOKER: The standard testing now involves a culturing method that requires people to grow things in a laboratory – often several rounds of growth – to identify an organism that may be in a food sample. Some labs have modernized and are turning to molecular diagnostics, but the front end still requires them to grow the bacteria. That’s where people are losing time.

FASTER FOOD: A molecular diagnostic can be broken down into two steps: You need to separate your target from everything else – in our case, you need to separate live bacteria from foodstuffs or wash-water or whatever product you’re testing. Then you need to identify the bacteria. Our handheld device addresses the first part. It captures the live bacteria (in a food or water sample) and lets you strip them out and put them directly into a molecular diagnostic. We’re eliminating the growing step.

SIMPLE DESIGN: The device looks like an hourglass. One bottle holds the sample, the bottleneck contains our special capture substrate and the bottom part is where you collect the waste after the sample is processed. You use a syringe to pull the sample through the top of the hourglass into the bottom, and the capture substrate in the bottleneck collects what you want and allows the rest to pass through.

FIELDWORK: As part of the guidelines the FDA is imposing on farmers, there will be external auditors and inspectors running these diagnostic tests, and that’s where we come in. This is going to be a low-scale-level product. It’s meant to be something that standard quality-control personnel can use with minimal training, not something that’s used in a laboratory. They take a sample, run it through our handheld device and put the captured bacteria immediately into a molecular diagnostic test. Now it’s hours, instead of weeks, to get to the diagnostic step.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: We want to empower the farmers, not police them. I want to be able to offer this device as a low-cost consumable. A good way to think about it is when you get a blood test: You fill multiple glass tubes with blood, and that’s a sample prep for a molecular diagnostic. We’d like to be that step in the food world: a simple, low-cost, high-volume consumable for frequent collection.

GETTING THERE: I’m still in the prototyping phase. Optimistically, it will be another six to 12 months before we can begin external validation tests. I’ve also spent a lot of time fundraising over the summer, and that’s been a good opportunity to start recruiting board members. So we’re both team-building and money-seeking.

SLOW FUNDING: We have not received any funding since Accelerate Long Island and the Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund (a joint $100,000 seed investment in July 2014). I’ve been pitching at events and speaking to angels and venture capitalists, but I haven’t actually secured another check. So I’ve basically been internally funding my R&D, working other jobs, including consulting gigs for Columbia University and (Feinstein Institute for Medical Research spinoff) Symbiotic Health. I’m also burning through my measly savings.

A WOMAN WITH A PLAN: If you’re going to start a biotech company, you need to find a niche where you can make a difference. If you’re going to compete in a hot field with a lot of people, you need to hit the ground running and have your entire infrastructure set up and ready. So I’ve been doing what many of us in the startup world try to do: lay out as much of the infrastructure as you can.

LOVING THE INCUBATOR LIFE: You can’t find any lab space for comparable square-footage prices anywhere in Greater New York. Rent subsidized by Empire State Development is crucial, and you get the additional advantage that Stony Brook Environmental Health and Services covers the code clearances you need to handle pathogens and other things, plus the removal of chemical waste and other biohazards, which can be very expensive for an independent brick-and-mortar laboratory. [The incubator] has been very supportive.

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE: I think what (Accelerate Long Island’s) Mark Lesko and (Jove Equity Partners CEO) David Calone and those people have established is a great springboard for companies to get their crucial seed funding, which is one of the hardest things for a young company. And when Innovate Long Island and other media recognize these initiatives, it brings them to the attention of other investors and creates a buzz.

SYMBIOTIC CITY: It’s true that New York City is also trying to create an innovation economy, but I think the two can be good for each other. People who might be looking to start a company in the city will be saying, “Hey, did you hear about what those guys on Long Island are doing?”

LONG ON OPTIMISM: I’m extremely optimistic about Long Island’s innovation economy. Long Island definitely has the young talent, and rent inside these incubators is cheaper than anything else you’ll find. You have anchor tenants who are becoming success stories. You have well-established seed funds. There are even law firms jumping on board to support the startup community. People are getting excited. Long Island has all the pieces – it’s just a matter of sewing them together.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER