Once an Engineer, Always an Engineer

Few engineers spend their workdays carrying out nothing but engineering-based tasks. And that goes double — or triple — for Chris McAndrew, who recently founded Koniku, a San Francisco biotech startup, with three others.

Koniku has created a lab-on-a-chip drug discovery platform. The technology merges engineering, biology and data analytics applications to read voltage signals inside a simulated cell to study the sub-cellular effects of treatments and diseases. The company has a drug discovery platform that models neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s and predicts the effects of drugs that could be used to treat them, McAndrew says.

The company calls this a “brain-on-a-chip” method that can aid the drug discovery process. It should be ready to ship within the second quarter of next year. In April, Koniku founders Osh Agabi, Christina Salys and McAndrew won the grand prize in the MIT Global Startup Workshop Business Plan Competition. (The fourth founder is Laura Brightman.)

Chris McAndrew on his first day in the lab.

The founders use lab space at IndieBio in San Francisco, which aims to accelerate synthetic biology ventures by offering lab space to biology companies, McAndrew says.

For three months, IndieBio provides seed funding, mentorship and lab space to companies like Koniku to help them perform needed research as they transition to fully formed companies.

The chips used in the lab-on-a-chip method are usually made from silicon or glass wafers that are etched with channels about the width of a hair. The etching is done by photolithography, the same method used to fabricate computer chips, according to the lab. Tiny streams of fluid, which can be manipulated for analysis, travel through the channels.

The chips typically connect to a power source, reservoirs, pumps and valves that dispense the fluids, analytical instruments and data processing systems.

Koniku aims to provide a digital system that allows drug developers to replicate human organ-drug interactions. The system aims to speed up the development of drug therapies to treat debilitating diseases by providing pharmaceutical companies with better insight into how their drug candidates will perform in human clinical trials.

McAndrew and his team kicked off their first day in the lab on September 28th.

While McAndrew says his title, now vice president of business development, no longer includes the word “engineer,” he still spends about a quarter of his time on engineering projects, as do the other three founding members. Since graduating in 2004 from Tulane University with a mechanical engineering degree, McAndrew earned an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management to help with the business side of the Koniku launch.

Even as he moves into business development, “work with engineering programs” keeps popping up, he says. He recently sent a wafer design created within SOLIDWORKS to a supplier.

“The tools we use have to work easily for ourselves and have to be easy for our external suppliers to use because we have so many different moving pieces,” McAndrew says. “We can’t afford to reformat and resend different file types.”

He also studies SOLIDWORKS renderings of the company’s CAD designs before passing them on to potential customers and others so they can get a glimpse of what the company is doing.

In the years after graduating from Tulane, McAndrew has worked in injection molding, tool design and mold design. He calls those his “heaviest CAD-using years.” Even when he “stepped away” from using his CAD skills on an everyday basis, he stayed connected to the CAD industry, attending SOLIDWORKS World and staying abreast of other CAD industry happenings.

Even as his title has changed, McAndrew says he’s still an engineer. He still, for instance, uses an engineering approach to his everyday work at Koniku.

“An engineer’s job is to define a problem and identify a solution,” he says. “You can design in a vacuum, but if you can’t figure out how to design for real use or how something can’t be done in the real world, it makes for a real problem.”

While he does leave some of the CAD design and drawing work these days to partners, the company’s main goal is to work closely with its supply chain to ensure its brain-on-a-chip devices are designed for manufacturability.

“We’re in startup mode, so we have to move quickly,” McAndrew says. “We’re definitely willing to change engineering so something can be made better or in a reduced amount of time. But if we waste a week because someone has a different file than the one we’re working from, then something has to be redone and that wastes time, money and effort.”

While his business card may no longer include the word “engineer,” McAndrew certainly knows how to do the job, and how to incorporate engineering skills into his other job functions. And that, he says, is what will make Koniku successful in the long run.

About the Author

Jean Thilmany has written about engineering software and design, engineering and manufacturing issues for more than ten years. Her work has appeared in Manufacturing Business Technology, HR and Packaging magazines, among many others.

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