A spinout of UNC’s physics department, Redbud Labs is a microfluidic chip manufacturer that launched its first product, MXR, in 2017. The company will be moving from UNC to Building 400 at The Frontier in late summer 2018.
The thing about startups? “There are always surprises,” says Ricky Spero, CEO of Redbud Labs. Originally called Rheomics (rheology + proteomics/genomics), the company was formed in 2012.
Ricky is one of three founders, along with Rich Superfine, Executive Chairman, and Russ Taylor, VP of Technology. But before the idea for Redbud Labs materialized, “Rich and Russ had worked together for twenty years building scientific instrumentation of different kinds at UNC-Chapel Hill,” says Ricky, who met the pair as a graduate student in Rich’s lab. Over the years, the lab developed several of new technologies that were then patented. ”As I was finishing my degree, Rich said ‘I want to start a company,’ and I said, ‘I’d like to be in the room.’”
The trio teamed up and took advantage of every resource available to startups at UNC, including Carolina Kickstart—a new program at the time—and a collaboration with the lab on campus. “We did exactly what you’re not supposed to do,” Ricky laughs. “We wrapped our arms around all of the new technology at once, and said there’s got to be a company in here somewhere—we just had to go figure out what that was.”
After a couple of years doing just that, the group brought on Jay Fisher, who is now VP of Engineering. Jay was also a student in Rich’s lab (a few years ahead of Ricky) and went on to do his post-doctorate work at Harvard. The timing was perfect; Jay found himself back in North Carolina right as Redbud landed its first funding—an NIH SBIR grant—in 2012. “Jay was the one who figured out how to get the underlying tech to really work,” Ricky says.
Going directly from school to helping found a startup was a unique experience for Ricky as well. “It’s just a different path to take,” he says, but one he doesn’t regret taking. “The thing that I discovered about myself in grad school that I really love systems engineering,” Ricky says. He explains that compared to other roles on a technical team, which are focused on specific components of a process, his role is about how each component fits together.
“Redbud does some really interesting science, but my job is not to be a scientist,” he says. It’s a big shift from what he was used to as a graduate student, but Ricky has a passion for problem-solving: “Only the system I am engineering is the organization.”
Another shift has occurred in the company’s relatively short lifetime: “We were exclusively an R&D group for a long time. Now, we’re now in a position where we have a product on the shelf that no longer needs to be improved or changed—it is now a matter of making it the same way, millions of times.”
That means in addition to continued research, Redbud Labs is a component vendor manufacturing its own product. The product, called MXR, is a microfluidic chip in its own category. A consumable component designed to simplify diagnostic testing in medical labs, they describe it as the “fastest, most adaptable microfluidic mixer in the world.”
Microfluiding chips are important components in life science consumables. One way to think about this, Ricky says, is to imagine you are at an outpatient clinic waiting on the results of a diagnostic test. To get a diagnosis, doctors use a small little box that contains a cartridge, or consumable, that you have to put into it to run the test. The MXR chip can be used as a component in those cartridges to help them run faster and make them more sensitive. “Our chip can have a positive effect on the cost and time of assembly, and we can also improve the speed of the assays themselves.”
MXR can reduce wait times for tests that normally take several hours into as little as 20 minutes, which Ricky says is a game changer. “In molecular diagnostics, you’re looking for nucleic acid, a DNA signature for a disease or cancer mutation. Imagine getting the answer to a test like that before you leave the doctor’s office.”
The realization of MXR’s groundbreaking potential over the past year has led to rapid growth on the Redbud Labs team. They quickly understood they needed space to accommodate all of their new business functions: a dedicated production suite, top-notch R&D spaces with a full applications lab and bio lab, and a shop to show how their products can be incorporated into larger products, plus—a first for Redbud team—office spaces.
Their central location thus far has also been a huge component of Redbud Labs’ success, so even though they have outgrown UNC, they have chosen to stay local. “There is no way this company would exist anywhere but the Triangle. We work with all three universities, so The Frontier in RTP is the perfect location for us,” Ricky says. He explains that the mentality in the region has pushed Redbud Labs to bring their full ideas to the table—“You can’t get away without doing your homework. There’s a discipline and intellectual honesty that I think is unique to this area of the country.”
To learn more about MXR and Redbud Labs, visit redbudlabs.com.
To learn about leasing lab space at The Frontier, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.