Success Story

NIST program gives protein-sequencing technology a springboard from lab to market

A protein-sequencing technology developed by researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is now being commercialized by a publicly traded company, less than two years after being part of NIST’s first Technology Maturation Accelerator Program (TMAP).

NIST launched TMAP in 2019 to provide an opportunity for NIST scientists and engineers to propel their lab-created innovations to the commercial market in an accelerated timeline. TMAP is a platform to help overcome the “valley of death” that many technologies experience between the prototype stage of development and the implementation stage. Ultimately it helps bridge the worlds of research in the federal government and the business needs of the private sector, to help drive the U.S. economy forward with the latest cutting-edge technologies.

Each year, researchers at NIST submit proposals for projects that are close to having commercial potential. The finalists are selected by the NIST Technology Partnerships Office and are given a chance to pitch their innovations to a panel of venture capitalists and business experts. The judges select the winners based on potential market opportunity, a unique and/or defensible component, and the ability to attract financial or venture investment to scale the commercial potential of the project. Each winning team receives NIST funds for one year to get its project market-ready, with the end goal of full commercialization of the technology.

The inaugural TMAP cycle took place in November 2019 and attracted a wide selection of NIST scientists and engineers and their innovations with more than 60 proposals submitted. One of the winning teams was composed of John Marino (team leader), Zvi Kelman, and Jennifer Tullman-Arbogast of the Material Measurements Laboratory at NIST; their project was entitled, “N-terminal amino acid binding (NAAB) reagents for use in next-generation protein spread prevention.” This research revolved around next-generation protein sequencing.

These days, genomes tend to fall short of explaining or predicting biological systems or human health and disease. Genomes do not fully determine the complete set of proteins found in a biological system, also known as proteomes, as complex regulatory processes govern which proteins are translated from a genome and to what extent. Direct measurements of proteomes are therefore essential and required to fully realize the potential of genome sequencing. To drive this technology forward, Marino’s team created novel protein-based sensors for use as NAABs in next-generation protein sequencing. The NAAB sensors provide sequential recognition and detection of specific amino acids comprising a protein sequence.

Following the team’s TMAP award, as its members began to accelerate their protein-sequencing technology, the private sector began to take notice. A Connecticut-based startup company, Quantum-SI, whose mission is to develop a next-generation, single-molecule protein sequencing platform, expressed interest in the project. Quantum-SI seeks to promote an ecosystem that “includes the necessary tools to decode the molecules of life, including tools for sample preparation, sequencing, and data analysis.” To achieve this vision, Quantum SI negotiated an exclusive commercial license with NIST in 2019 for the engineered protein reagents invented by the TMAP project team. These protein reagents are a key infrastructural technology that enables the approach Quantum SI wants to take with its existing cutting-edge platform.

In February 2021, after licensing the engineered protein reagent technology from NIST, Quantum-SI agreed to merge with HighCape Capital Acquisition Corp in a deal to take the company public. The company will receive $425 million in private investment from multiple institutional investors to help fund operations. The merging of Quantum-SI and HighCape Capital Acquisition Corp brings with it a valuation of $1.46 billion.

From Marino’s team pitching its innovation as part of the TMAP opportunity at NIST, to using the winning funds to accelerate the project toward commercialization, to licensing the technology to Quantum-SI, this scientific effort was already a lab-to-market success. The recent merger could take that success to the next level.

Meanwhile, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, TMAP returned again in 2020. Ten teams pitched their innovations, and four winners were selected to receive funding and further accelerate their technologies toward the market.