By Stephanie Davis | Photo by John Goldy
Genomics, a discipline that involves DNA, its sequencing, and the study of the role of the genome, is a passion of Brad Goodner, a biology professor at Hiram since 2001. Part of his science passion is about fusing the research component with an entrepreneurial opportunity.
“I want more science students to see the business possibilities out there with a science background. Part of my goal in coming to Hiram College was to involve my own students in research, reach out to area high schools, and use research as an outreach tool,” Goodner says. “We used grant money support for several years, but grants don’t last forever. We wanted to find a different way to sustain the research.”
In 2007 Goodner talked to a member of the college’s board of trustees who had a strong business background. Goodner and his colleague discussed building a self-sustaining genomics program at Hiram.
After personally researching scientific education businesses, such as Nasco in Wisconsin, Goodner discovered that, from Hiram’s angle, if the school would join forces with another company, it would end up as a small partner at best — with little benefit to the college. “We wouldn’t get much out of it from a monetary standpoint, so we found that the best thing to do would be to start a small company at Hiram and run it on campus,” he says.
In 2010 Hiram Genomics Store was incorporated under a larger business known as Hiram Ventures LLC, which is owned by the college but run separately.
“That same year, with the help of four undergrads, a couple faculty colleagues, and a little seed money from the Center for Integrated Entrepreneurship on Hiram’s campus, we were able to get the business running as a web-based business,” Goodner says.
The business focuses on providing research opportunities for students in high school and in university teaching labs. Goodner and his Hiram Genomics Store team assemble customer-tailored research kits, which are affordable to teachers yet priced to ensure student workers receive pay.
“We aren’t looking for giant margins. The goal is to merge social entrepreneurialism with college recruiting. We want to help get the Hiram name in front of high schools,” he adds.
As Goodner explains, in science education typically businesses will offer options for teaching lab experiments. “If you buy that kit, whoever else buys that same kit will know the answer as well – it’s not customized to each customer.
“Upfront, we try to get students and teachers to understand how a customized kit works. It’s critical to modern biology. We want students to work with DNA in different ways,” he adds.
For example, Goodner explains, a teacher may want to use DNA to identify pathogens in hospitals. He or she may want to recreate the pathogen scenario in a high school setting. So, students could swab chickens in a grocery store to see if there’s salmonella. They would swab the chicken, isolate DNA, and then test whether the DNA contains evidence of salmonella from the sample.
“That’s just one example of how it helps teachers bring the research mindset into classroom,” he says.
DNA-based biology has undergone notable changes in the last 40 years. “For example, in microbiology, in the past we were only able to grow one bacterial strain out of 100. Now we can take samples — swabbing chickens or swabbing the kitchen counter and isolating DNA to discover how many different hundreds or thousands of microorganisms are present. These are big datasets, and we are learning how to deal with them and teaching students this,” he says.
To date, the customer base for Hiram Genomics is largely high schools, many of which are in Northeast Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, and Missouri. Remaining customers are at the college and university level.
In the last couple years, Goodner says the business has started to blossom, thanks to a developing web presence via Facebook and Twitter, advertisements, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising. “We are trying to connect like-minded people, using social media to like other companies,” he says.
Hiram Genomics Store sells up to three kits per month, largely during the academic year. “Quite often someone will call one week and need it next week. We work on their time,” he says of the store, which allows pre-orders and shipments at later requested dates.
Customized kits cost $100-$200 per kit on average. Average orders range from $300 to $1,500.
“With the science education field, it’s a seller’s market. Buyers don’t have time to compare prices or to negotiate with a seller. We are working to support other companies to help high schools do these experiments reasonably and affordably,” he says.
Beyond DNA kits, Goodner and his students are developing computer software that Hiram Genomics Store offers for free. “The teacher is purchasing not a physical reagent but access to DNA data sets that we’ve generated,” he says.
“For example, we can take microorganisms isolated from the human armpit with and without deodorant. We get results of the experiment and give users software to analyze the data. This is going to impact all students in the future — how to deal with big data,” he says.
For now, he says partnerships in the school setting are critical. “Schools need to think about broadening the impact they can have on students. View young scientists as becoming young entrepreneurs, not just having the big idea but turning it into something that works,” he says. “My students can see the lab side — but they never think their idea can be taken and made into a business. Part of that realization has to come from the people who are already entrepreneurs.”
As someone in his mid-50s, he adds, “Add my name to the list – anyone can be an entrepreneur at any age.”
Having been in Northeast Ohio for 15 years now, Goodner, a former Texan, says, “With the growth in biomedical research-based businesses, and not just on the medical side, the whole spectrum is something for Northeast Ohio to really act upon. Also, we want people to not forget the small schools. We can think with the big boys.”
For more information: facebook.com/hiramgenomicsstore