Risk and Reward

  • October 3, 2016

It was June 2014, at 58-years-old, when Randy Davis (BS ’02, Biological Sciences; MS ’06 Biological Sciences) got the news: The multinational Swiss healthcare company Roche was going to purchase his electronic DNA sequencing chip to the tune of $125 million. And if the chip could meet certain targets in detecting and reading DNA over the next several years — not entirely proven at the time of Roche’s acquisition — Davis and his colleagues would receive an even bigger payout. 

But more importantly, if those benchmarks are fulfilled (Davis reports exciting developments are underway), the electronic DNA chip will take him one step closer to fulfilling his dreams of revolutionizing personalized medicine. “Imagine that you go into your doctor’s office and spit in a tube, and while you’re having your consultation with the doctor, your entire genome is being read in about 30 minutes,” Davis explains. “All of your treatments, things you might be at risk for or need screenings for, or a person’s allergy risks for certain medications, wouldn’t be guesswork anymore. Everything will be tailored to your specific DNA.”

But for the tech-minded entrepreneur and co-founder of Genia Technologies, who had the idea for an electronic DNA detection chip a decade earlier, it almost didn’t happen.

And not because of the sleepless nights, failed hypotheses and draining finances that characterize many great startups.

It was because after already committing to the big risks — quitting a successful job, enrolling in college, and pursuing a discipline far removed from any prior experience — no university would admit him.

“Everywhere I went, no one would give me the time of day,” Davis recalls. “I don’t mind telling you I took myself out for a [drink] after that. I felt really, really low.”

Davis, who began his career as translator for Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry and is former executive director of sales at Maxim Integrated Products, first saw a DNA microarray (or DNA detection chip) while on a sales call at Hewlett Packard. It was the late 1990s and HP was preparing to launch one of the very early DNA microarray scanners.

“I remember seeing that, and it just really interested me,” Davis says. “And I began looking into biology courses at local community colleges — extension courses — and just taking whatever classes I could at night to understand the science of it.”

Eventually, Davis would come home one day and tell his wife Pat about a change of course in their life — and ask what she thought of him giving up his career to start anew.

“There was no letting him [quit his job],” Pat notes today, reflecting on the years that followed — years filled with lab equipment and textbooks littered across their countertops, dining room, and eventually, the entire garage. “This was his passion.”

Fortunately, Davis made one last stop on his tour of colleges before throwing in the towel.

“I came here [to Cal State], and I went to the biology department, and there was a guy there — I found out later he was the department chair (Professor Emeritus Steve Benson) — and I told him I was interested in the program,” Davis recalls. “He took the time to answer my questions and he took me downstairs and showed me the lab. It was, oh, all of about 30 minutes and he didn’t make any promises that I would get in and he said it wouldn’t be easy, but he gave me his time. I left thinking, ‘This is it.’”

“I want students to be able to go further with the questions they want to ask, to go deeper.”

Although it would be years before Davis’s technology took off, he was indeed admitted as an undergraduate student in 2000 and began, deep in the belly of Cal State East Bay’s BioCore Lab, the first tests for what would eventually become an electronic DNA sequencing chip.

“His idea at the time, was, ‘Can we do DNA analysis on electronic, silicon chips as opposed to the optics that we’ve been doing?’” says Professor Chris Baysdorfer, Davis’ mentor and friend. “He had a long history in hardware technology … and an [interest] in technological advances that incorporate IT and DNA. He just needed to learn the molecular biology.

“I only found out after the fact that everyone had turned him down,” Baysdorfer continues. “And it makes me want to strangle my [peers]. You see someone who is a mature guy, motivated, intelligent … he’s exactly the sort of person that second chances were meant for.”

Today, Davis, who obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Cal State East Bay, and Pat, are enabling current students to have more of those chances. Baysdorfer is stewarding a four-year pledge the Davises have made to the BioCore Lab so that undergraduate students can have access to reagents, tools, assay kits, and other supplies for hands-on research.

“I want students to be able to go further with the questions they want to ask, to go deeper,” Davis says of the funding. “The way the classes were at Cal State East Bay — the professors gave you enough pieces to figure things out, but not the answers themselves. They took you a certain distance, and then it was up to you to go the rest of the way. That’s the best way to learn.”