Tech firm with international reach grows on coast
In an unassuming two-story office building on Main Street in Half Moon Bay, a biotech entrepreneur runs a startup that pulls in important federal funding, distributes its products internationally and develops breakthrough technology for improving how biopharmaceuticals are studied.
The business, with 11 full-time employees, inhabits only the first floor. But founder Scot Weinberger has plans to take over the whole building and to grow his company into a leading provider of innovative biotechnology, all while staying on the Coastside.
The company, GenNext Technologies, uses an emerging technology for analyzing the structures of protein molecules.
Proteins are large molecules that perform innumerable functions in the body. They carry oxygen in the blood, digest food, and, importantly for the field of
medicine, fight disease via the immune system. Proteins exist in complexly twisted and folded configurations. These elaborate 3D structures enable their various functions.
The newest, most powerful drugs on the market are proteins that are developed to work like the body’s own immune system to target and fight diseases. Protein-based drugs such as monoclonal antibodies can be used effectively on hard-to-treat conditions like cancer, autoimmune diseases and Alzheimer’s.
Their mode of action is to bind with targets in the body, a process that depends on the molecule’s 3D structure — what’s called the “higher-order structure.”
“If the higher-order structure is wrong, bad things can happen,” says Weinberger, causing side effects from nausea to deadly anaphylactic shock. Biopharmaceuticals need to be shaped correctly to reduce such side effects.
Analyzing protein structures is critical to drug research and development. But up until now, it’s been a laborious and expensive process involving tools like nuclear magnetic resonance and X-ray crystallography. “Structural biology is really hard,” said Weinberger. “Our tool simplifies it.”
The GenNext tool uses a faster, less cumbersome process based on simple hydrogen peroxide. Improving the analysis of protein structures can lead to quicker development of drugs that work better and have fewer side effects.
Weinberger has been an inventor and entrepreneur for more than 30 years: He has 23 U.S patents to his credit and has been involved in half a dozen startup companies. He launched GenNext in 2005, and in 2019 the company sold its first product to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Weinberger lives in Montara and likes working locally. Biotech companies are scarce on this side of the hill, but Weinberger’s hope is to hire local workers who want a career that doesn’t require them to drive Highway 92 every day. Weinberger knows the travails of a Coastside commute. When Highway 1 shut down at Devil’s Slide for five months in 2006, he had to travel the long way around to his volunteer coaching job with Pacifica’s Pop Warner football team.
GenNext has already hired locally, and they’ve taken on interns from Half Moon Bay High School and local colleges. In addition to science and engineering talent, the company will need employees to market the product and to support their sales with training and service. There are currently three jobs and two internships listed on the company website.
Half Moon Bay’s proximity to Silicon Valley has been essential to Weinberger in developing the company: He’s had access to the region’s expertise and
benefited from its entrepreneurial, idealistic mindset. But he’s convinced his business can thrive here, over the hill from the main tech scene.
Venture capitalists who invested in his earlier company didn’t agree.
“They didn’t get why we’d be on the coast,” Weinberger said, and they moved the company out of Montara. This time, he wants to retain control. Instead of VC funding, the company has gotten $9.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to develop its technology — work that led, last year, to a new U.S. patent.
The company recently secured distribution in Japan through an agreement with Kiko Tech, a premier provider of high-tech research equipment to Japanese biomedical researchers.
Weinberger has big ambitions for the company. He jokes, “I want to be the next GoPro,” referring to another successful business started on the coast. “But I want to stay local.”