Five years ago, Bob Lansdorp and his fellow UCSB graduate student researchers won the 2015 Technology Management New Venture Competition with their pitch for a wearable biosensor that could monitor alcohol consumption in real time.
Last year, their startup Milo Sensors, Inc. continues to gain accolades with a $2 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant will allow the tech startup to move from conducting their research and development at the wet lab at UCSB’s California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) to establish their own space in the Santa Barbara area.
We open 2020 with a special Alumni Spotlight Q&A with Dr. Lansdorp about Milo Sensors, his grad school experience at UC Santa Barbara, and his goals for his company’s future.
What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?
Having just completed my master's degree in 2010, I decided that I wanted to live in California. I packed my bags, and showed up on a 3-month tourist visa from my home country of Canada. I knew that my ideal scenario would be to get a Ph.D. position at a top-notch school, and I began speaking with as many professors as I could.
After many meetings, conferences, and rejected applications, I managed to get an offer for a Ph.D position at another top school. Coincidentally, I was fortunate to meet Professor Omar Saleh in the Materials Department at UCSB that same week, who happened to be looking for someone with an interest in instrumentation to fill a spot in one of his grants and offered me the opportunity to become a research assistant in his lab at UCSB. After some deliberation, I chose UCSB over the other school because UCSB has more of a scientific flavor than the more engineering-focused school that I was looking at. Since most of my training up to that point was in engineering, I thought it would be good for me to challenge myself by struggling to answer questions about nature rather than just build machines as I had done in the past. It also helped that UCSB was close to the beach, and that my girlfriend (now fiancé) was already a Ph.D. student at UCSB. After returning to Canada to get a visa, I was able to join the lab of Professor Saleh in the UCSB Materials Department as a research assistant, transitioning to the Ph.D. program 9 months later.
What was your graduate school research focus?
The Saleh Lab studies squishy stuff like proteins and DNA, the building-block of life. The questions being studied in the group vary a lot, from the biophysics of single-stranded DNA and RNA and its relation to salt, to hydrogel material properties, to protein/DNA interactions. The question I was trying to answer was: what is the step size of a DNA helicase? DNA helicases are motor proteins, molecular motors that burn ATP for energy in order to unzip DNA during the replication process. To answer the question, I was helping to develop a microscope that could look at squishy stuff on the length-scale of a single-base-pair of DNA. I experimented with different light sources, high-speed cameras, software, optics, and learned a lot of biochemistry in order to test different DNA constructs in the instrument.
What was it like working with your mentors and colleagues at your department?
The Saleh Lab is filled with smart, hard-working, and diverse students and scholars, and I had a blast working on some cool bio-physics together and learning a lot in the process. One of the most useful things I learned from Professor Saleh was how to perform first-order analysis of complicated systems. Breaking down a complicated problem into some basic building blocks, putting them down on a whiteboard, and deriving some outputs is a useful skill to have if you are studying biophysics, but also when starting a company!
I was given great freedom by Professor Saleh to pursue the research that I thought was important. As a result, I probably wasn't as productive in the short-term as I could have been if he had micro-managed my projects. However, I believe that it benefited me in the longer-term, because I learned a lot about leadership and initiative which has served me well at my startup.
When did you first realize your fascination for your chosen discipline?
In high school back in Vancouver Canada, I was fortunate to have many great teachers, in subjects such as biology, physics, and electronics. For example, when I started reading ahead in the physics textbook, my teacher Dr. Hawes let me rummage around the back-room of his classroom, which was filled with parts for different physics experiments. While everyone else was listening to him give a lecture and learning about Hooke's Law, I was building an electromagnetic projectile launcher with some wire and a giant capacitor I found. Occasionally, the class was disturbed by a loud bang or other commotion coming from the back row, but for most of the time I was quietly assembling some contraption such as a lock-pick, a battery-powered paper airplane, or a miniature trebuchet. It was a lot of fun, and my antics allowed me to imagine that I was the protagonist of my own version of Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!, a book that I was reading at the time. That book and others like it had a way of keeping physics and engineering fun in a way that got me hooked.
What did you enjoy most as a student at UCSB?
Competitions such as the UCSB Grad Slam or the UCSB New Venture Competition, felt to me like an opportunity to put my best foot forward, but also to meet other like-minded individuals. I learned that one of my favorite activities is brainstorming with others about how widely varying subjects, from health-care to energy, with a coal of changing the world for the better.
What was it like for you to participate in and WIN the New Venture Competition? What did you love most about this competition experience?
I love the freedom that the NVC offers. Any problem in the world becomes an opportunity to imagine a better future. My first NVC idea in 2013 was to help solve the climate crisis by storing grid-scale energy using liquid nitrogen, in a process known as cryogenic energy storage. I estimated that first pilot plant would cost approximately $2 million and give a return on investment in 10 years, if everything went perfectly to plan. Needless to say, there was not a lot of enthusiasm for the project from the local investment community. A couple of years later, I returned with a team and an idea to make a wearable alcohol sensor. Originally, I was hoping to be a technical advisor for a team of undergraduate students, but I soon became totally obsessed with the project, spending all my evenings and weekends on it. I went from advisor, to CTO, and most recently to CEO. I had never done any electrochemistry before, so I began reading every paper and textbook I could find, and recruiting advisors to help me get up to speed. With a lot of hard work, and a few of the practical lessons that I had learned from my previous experience in the NVC, our team managed to win the competition. The many brainstorm sessions on how to convert the infinity of potential into a concrete plan of action, was probably the most fun part for me.
Tell us about Milo Sensors and its progress since you left UCSB. What is it like for you and your team to work together? What are your goals for your company?
The last 4 years have been a rollercoaster. Like any startup founder, I have experienced some rough patches and have had a few soul-searching moments. Some of the high points have included: developing a novel electro-chemical sensor from scratch, obtaining a patent, obtaining grants, building a great team, and probably most rewarding of all: shipping a product to a paying customer. We recently started shipping pre-beta units of our wearable alcohol sensors to researchers around the globe, and are starting to get real-world feedback. One of the most exciting things for me so far has been to see real data appear on our server, knowing that around the globe at that very minute, someone is wearing one of our alcohol sensors and collecting data, and that the data collected will advance scientific understanding of alcohol consumption. At times like that, there are a lot of high-fives going around.
One thing I have learned in the past four years is the scale of the alcohol problem in the US. There are 15 million Americans with Alcohol Use Disorder, and 1 million who seek treatment every single year. The economic costs are staggering, with over $250 Billion lost in economic costs due to alcohol misuse every year. To give you a sense of scale: that's worse than all illicit drugs combined. The existing treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder have a lot of potential for improvement, and so there is a great opportunity to make a real difference. Our goals in the coming years are to develop tools that can be used together with state-of-the-art treatments to make a positive difference for individuals with Alcohol Use Disorder, their families, and communities.
Congratulations on winning the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). How did you and your team react to winning this award in 2019?
We received a Phase II SBIR grant after 2 rejected applications, a trip to Washington D.C., publishing a peer-reviewed paper, shipping units to researchers, and more than six months of negotiations. The month leading up to the Notice of Award, I was pretty much non-stop filling in government paper-work. So although I'm very happy we received it, it's not as if the grant just fell from the sky!
I feel very fortunate to be in the unique position to have enough NIH funding to make a positive difference. The thing I'm most excited about in the coming months is to use the funds to recruit a team of experts that can help advance our mission. I can't wait to see what our company looks like in six months!
What drives you to do what you do each day?
People with alcohol addiction are in a negative spiral, with more drinking causing more problems, and more problems causing more drinking. Caught in the spiral with severe Alcohol Use Disorder, they are not living the best versions of themselves. The idea that we can help break the spiral of addiction and help people become happy and healthy members of society inspires me to push forward with the company. I believe we can increase the consciousness of the world by breaking the spiral of addiction for millions of people. Think of all that untapped potential!
That's the big picture motivation. On a day-to-day basis, it's a lot of fun to develop new technology. Every day is filled with technical challenges that are very rewarding to solve. One thing that is always a big boost to motivation is when someone on the team takes initiative to solve a problem on their own. The hard work of our team drives me to become a better version of myself and push harder to solve problems.