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Techniques & Tools Mass Spectrometry, Pharma & Biopharma

Will the Real SLIM Please Stand Up?

Can you tell me a little about your background and the founding of MOBILion Systems?
 

By training, I am a polymer chemist. But my corporate career, which has spanned the past 25 years, has focused on building businesses. I've always had a passion for the business side of things – and I’ve worked in a variety of areas, including technology, regenerative medicine, surgical products and the apparel industry (our startup was featured in Wired magazine in 2000 as a disruptive fashion business). I really love growing something from nothing, and this is part of the reason I was so excited to have the opportunity to build MOBILion.

I was introduced to the technology via IP Group, which is an early-stage technology investor that forms long-term partnerships with research institutes to help guide disruptive science in a commercially viable direction – from proof of concept to commercialization. I initially worked with IP Group to build their US business, and once we had the US team in place, we set out to scout disruptive technologies from a handful of universities and federal laboratories. And that’s where I first came across structures for lossless ion manipulation (SLIM) – the platform technology behind MOBILion’s first high resolution ion mobility (HRIM) product, MOBIE – which was being developed by Richard Smith and his research group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I wrote the investment thesis and told IP Group it was something I thought would have a tremendous impact on the life science tools industry. Our early stage financing milestones included sponsoring research to achieve technical proof of concept and building early prototypes. I was so excited by the possibilities of this technology, I left IP Group in 2017 and became the founding CEO of MOBILion – the rest is history. 

What was your “dream” when you set out – and has that been realized?
 

I saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity – I truly believed SLIM could have an impact in so many places. Even now, I’d be lying if I said I know exactly where all those places will be or where the greatest impact will be, but that’s part of the fun for me. It’s almost like being an explorer, discovering uncharted territory. I recognized the potential five years ago and that’s why I left IP Group to dedicate all of my time to MOBILion. At the highest level, our mission has not changed at all in five years – we set out to improve how we predict, diagnose, and treat disease. Whether that means better characterizing therapeutics and getting drugs to market faster, better safety and efficacy profiles, discovering the next biomarker, or having a clinical diagnostic instrument that can detect biomarkers to diagnose diseases earlier. 

Have there been any major challenges along the way? 
 

The obvious one is COVID, right? But there have been other challenges. When we set out, I was the only employee and we didn’t have an office or lab – it really was like starting with a clean sheet of paper. Our first key milestones were hiring a team, getting a space to work in, and transferring the tech – making sure Richard Smith didn’t have to hold everyone’s hand to operate the technology. Next was product development – going from a “Frankenunit” primitive prototype to something that was manufacturable and scalable. That was probably the biggest challenge.

Thankfully, we’ve got a great team who always seem to find a way through whatever roadblock we hit – COVID-19 included. Perhaps our greatest achievement is how we overcame these challenges to launch at ASMS 2021. When we first attended ASMS in 2017, we had nothing but a drawing of our product on a piece of paper. Looking ahead to future ASMS conferences, we saw that 2021 was in Philadelphia (our backyard) – and we set our sights on ASMS 2021 for the launch. Somehow, despite COVID, we did it – which is a testament to the team and their relentless perseverance, dedication, and drive.

How is high resolution ion mobility MS different to other ion mobility systems – and what are the particular benefits of SLIM?
 

SLIM technology is based on doing separations in the gas phase on printed circuit board technology; one major advantage is that it’s one-size-fits-all. So unlike LC systems, for example, you don’t need to think about columns and hardware component changeout for the different separations you are performing.  In other words, it is an analyte agnostic separation platform with easier, simpler method development that applies to lipids, glycans, peptides, or proteins. Because the separation is in the gas phase, it is achieved in seconds or minutes as compared to minutes or hours. For example, a peptide map fingerprint experiment might take 90 minutes on an LC-MS system, we can achieve that analysis in 5-10 minutes with greater elucidation of key posttranslational modifications. The MOBIE product and the core technology is driven by electronics and the separation is based on physical properties of ionized analytes, resulting in better reproducibility and easier push-button operation. The main advantage is the deeper level of characterization we are able to achieve. We like to say we “reveal what others leave unseen,” and it’s true – our SLIM technology allows us to separate and identify molecules that other instruments fail to detect. Many times, even if there are other tools able to detect key analytes, we are able to do it faster, easier and with greater reproducibility, eliminating the tradeoffs associated with other approaches.   

You seem to be targeting the biopharma space at the moment. 
 

Yes. As I mentioned already, there are a number of application areas for MOBIE – but we have to focus and start somewhere. Initially, we are focusing on the need for better characterization of biologic therapeutics. The current trend toward large molecule therapeutics requires better, more powerful instrumentation to adequately characterize more complex systems and provide that information faster than ever before, to get drugs to market faster. So, for our first product, we are working with our early adopters to enhance monoclonal antibody characterization and peptide mapping – specifically looking at posttranslational modifications (PTMs), among other characterization workflows. Essentially, we are delivering faster, better, deeper characterization of critical quality attributes that a biopharma company identifies and monitors to optimize the safety and efficacy of the drug. 

Could you provide more details of the MOBIE system? 
 

Our High-Resolution Ion Mobility product, MOBIE, is integrated with Agilent’s 6545, 6545XT and 6546 Q-TOF mass spectrometers to help pharma companies develop safer and more effective biologics, as well as to aid researchers in discovering novel biomarkers. The core SLIM technology inside of MOBIE was designed to have a very long separation path length – 13 meters to be precise – condensed in a small form factor. Other ion mobility approaches max out at a meter. Why do we care about 13 meters versus one meter? Because the longer the path length, the more separation you can achieve. And that translates again to revealing what others leave unseen. 

What are you most excited about for the future of MOBILion Systems?  
 

I think I’m most excited about the breadth of potential applications. People often ask, “What’s the killer application for MOBIE?” My response is usually along the lines of, “What’s the killer application for liquid chromatography?” The fun part is going to be working with our partners, collaborators and early adopters to explore many different applications and uncharted territories with our customers. Gaining customer feedback is also key to our evolution. MOBILion is not a one product and done company – the SLIM form factor is amenable to achieving nearly endless design combinations and permutations. There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to succeed in many different areas of life science.  In the separation science world, there are many applications and many customers that would benefit from faster, deeper, easier, and more reproducible separations. I am really excited to see how much we are going to learn over the course of the next few years – and to what extent we will help our customers better predict, diagnose and treat disease by putting better characterization tools in their hands.

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About the Author
Lauren Robertson

By the time I finished my degree in Microbiology I had come to one conclusion – I did not want to work in a lab. Instead, I decided to move to the south of Spain to teach English. After two brilliant years, I realized that I missed science, and what I really enjoyed was communicating scientific ideas – whether that be to four-year-olds or mature professionals. On returning to England I landed a role in science writing and found it combined my passions perfectly. Now at Texere, I get to hone these skills every day by writing about the latest research in an exciting, creative way.

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