|Full interview with Cathy Owen|
Q. Your Web site says Nanopoint's expertise is in developing "ultra-high resolution intracellular imaging technologies" for the study and treatment of diseases. Can you explain that in simple terms?
A. In layman's terms what we are doing is building a new microscope platform. And I think most people understand that if I use a microscope I'm looking at very small things that I can't see with my naked eye. People are used to high school biology with a microscope and a slide. We're just now taking that to a whole new level. Its significantly better resolution so I can see more detail, much smaller things.
Q. How does Nanopoint's technology differ from traditional imaging systems?
A. The way imaging has been done in the past you have to kill the cell and then you slice it up and you look at it and you piece things back together and that's how you figure out what might have happened. Researchers today want to actually see what happens live, real time. So I want the cell kept intact and I want it kept alive for a longer term so I can see what happens over time. We provide a life support system for that cell so that it stays alive and happy for the duration of the experiment.
Q. What kind of interest is there among researchers for your system?
A. We have our first product in the market. We started our early-shipment program in September first. We have three customers right now of our first imaging system. They are N.C. State back in Raleigh, North Carolina, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and then Cellular Bioengineering here in Hawai'i.
Q. How is the environment in Hawai'i for the development of tech companies?
A. This is actually my second high-tech company here in Hawai'i. For Nanopoint, we're a very unique place as a life sciences company. The new medical school has helped a lot in terms of bringing in scientists and getting us on the radar screen as far as the fact that we are doing advanced science and research here in Hawai'i. That's made it a little easier for us to find the kind of talent we need for Nanopoint as opposed to some of the other tech companies here in Hawai'i.
Q. What other support has the industry received?
A. As far as doing business in Hawai'i, the thing that I've noticed is that there is more of a support infrastructure than when I came here six years ago. There is much more focus at the state level in providing lab space. And the centralization of some of the industry groups has helped so there is a single point of contact.
Q. Is Hawai'i's location a plus or a minus for the industry?
A. For Nanopoint it actually works to our advantage. We have investors from the Mainland and investors from Asia. Part of our product line we will be building is consumable devices that will be thrown away, so the cost of manufacturing becomes quite important to us. Most companies go offshore for that anyway. The thing that is nice about being here in Hawai'i is that we can go ahead and outsource all that to Asia. And then we could open an office on the Mainland for sales. So we end up being very strategically positioned. All our intellectual property is here in Hawai'i. We can do manufacturing in Asia; we can sell on the Mainland or anywhere else in the world.
Q.You worked at IBM in Silicon Valley for 21 years. How did you end up in Hawai'i?
A. That's an interesting saga. My husband and I both worked for IBM and we had property in Maui. We would come to our place in Maui and every time we would go home we would ask ourselves "why don't we live here full time?" I eventually left IBM and went to work for a small startup company in California. On the last day of our vacation in Maui, I saw a little article in The Honolulu Advertiser that said, "Software company raises $6.8 million." I said to my husband, "That's it! I do software — software Hawai'i here we go." Then the San Jose Mercury News ran a special employment section where I saw an ad from a software company seeking an executive management team. I submitted my resume and six weeks later I was here.
Q. So you don't have a science background?
A. I've been in software companies pretty much my whole life. At IBM you can move around a lot and you can gain a lot of different expertise. In my 21 years at IBM, I started off as a programmer, I managed technical writers, managed software pricers, managed the entire software budget for a division — a $14 million budget. It was sort of that basic experience that led me to have all the tools in my tool kit on how to then foster an idea and take it to market.
Q. What's the short history of Nanopoint?
A. We spun out from Oceanit, which is a kind of an R&D incubator here in Hawai'i. We spun out in August of 2004 when I joined the company. My first year was spent fundraising, which allowed me to hire staff and get my own facilities. On Dec. 1 last year I moved in to these offices in Pioneer Plaza. We started out with three employees and currently we have eight full-time and two part-time employees.
Q. Where do you see Nanopoint five to 10 years from now?
A. I actually see us getting acquired by a bigger company. We're in a very interesting space right now. What we are is a platform provider and there are a lot of companies, pharmaceutical companies, reagent companies, looking for a platform for imaging and taking advantage of the rest of their current product line. We talk to a lot of people who are very interested in what we're doing. We're looking for strategic partnerships that would be happy to leave us alone here in Hawai'i continuing to do what we do well.
Q. What if a potential suitor wanted to move Nanopoint to the Mainland?
A. One of the reasons that I'm here is that I'm very passionate about trying to help Hawai'i build a sustainable tech industry. So I think what we have to ask is whether we're taking a suitor for personal gain or are we taking a suitor because we think it's the right thing to build a sustainable industry here. What I'm looking at — because I don't want to go back to Silicon Valley, I don't want to live in New Jersey — what I'm really looking at is a partner that believes that the technology can continue to exist here, thrive here, and that we're an asset to another company. That's not necessarily what has happened to a lot of Hawai'i companies, which is why they've had to move with the money.
Interviewed by Alan Yonan, Advertiser Assistant Business Editor.