A Time for Growth: An Executive Interview with HTG CEO John Lubniewski

It was a pleasure to sit down with the CEO of HTG, John Lubniewski, to hear about the company’s history, discuss the present focus, and get a glimpse of the future.

HTG got its start in 1998 as a small private biotechnology company focused on helping pharmaceutical companies make advances in precision medicine with gene expression profiling based on a quantitative nuclease protection assay (qNPA) technology. From 2011 to 2015 the company deployed initiatives to build the first instrument automating the workflow and to convert the qNPA chemistry into what is now the HTG EdgeSeq™ system. Successes in building the team and technology led to an incorporation of the company in May of 2015. Following that momentous event the company undertook a geographic expansion into Europe, created a state-of-the-art manufacturing and lab facility in Tucson, Arizona, and developed a robust portfolio of new products.

Today HTG is well positioned to benefit from the increasing use of NGS-based RNA sequencing technologies in drug discovery and development as well as diagnostic applications. Focused on accelerating the promise of precision medicine from discovery to treatment, HTG is a world class provider of gene expression profiling solutions through the VERI/O™ laboratory services, reagent and instrument sales, as well as in-house drug discovery through the therapeutics division formed in 2021. Both the profiling and the therapeutics units of the company are poised to expand the frontiers in RNA discovery working closely with customers and collaborators while maintaining the ability to independently develop and commercialize drug and diagnostic assets.

Interviewer (I): When did you join HTG and what compelled you to join this company?

John Lubniewski (JL): I joined the company in 2011 for three reasons. First, it has a great social mission in helping people who are sick. Second, we are doing cutting-edge science, so I find that intellectually stimulating every day. And last, I saw the opportunity for personal growth within the company.

I: What part of the company culture is the most important for you?

JL: I will start with the fact that our culture at HTG is strong. We have what we call a culture of accountability. What does this mean? It is a culture where you are expected to see and deal with problems head on. Trust is extended, not earned. We do not kick the can down the road on hard issues. Honest and candid feedback is expected. And we use facts and data to drive our decisions. It is not political; we do not play the blame game. Therefore, it is a safe place to make decisions and make mistakes. You do not do great things by playing it safe. I want a culture that is inclusive where everyone feels like they can make a difference in our key results every single day.

I: What is HTG’s mission?

JL: We are a precision medicine company. So, what we are trying to do is help people unravel the root causes of disease and make sure that they can get the right treatment for the right patients. And part of precision medicine is to develop safe and effective therapies. Our advanced profiling technology can help revolutionize how drugs are discovered and de-risked for clinical development. That is why we have expanded into drug discovery.

I: How is HTG accomplishing this mission?

JL: We have proprietary technology in RNA and so what we are looking to do is to unravel the transcriptome. Those are the coding genes- there are about 20,000 of them in the human genome. And by doing that you are able to gain insight into what is actually causing disease. What is the actual mechanism of action for that particular disease state? And you then can help pharmaceutical companies develop therapies by also understanding the biology of the disease so that you can start to dial in the right therapy for the right patient. That is how we can use RNA as a platform technology to help improve patient care and that is the heart and soul of what we do in our contribution to precision medicine.

I: What does this mean for customers who are biopharma companies and research institutions?

JL: Our niche is RNA and RNA essentially is almost like a traffic camera that you can hang on the LA freeway system and what we have the ability to do is to hang 20,000 traffic cameras so that you can really understand what is happening in that patient's network. So that you can really, again, better understand disease and once you understand what is causing the disease, you are in a better position to begin to try to fight it.

I: How does this help patient care?

JL: We believe this can actually help improve patient care in several ways. First, it is going to make building new medicines and new drugs faster and less expensive than today. Second, if there is a molecular subtype  identified early in disease onset, we can  start to develop the diagnostic because we've been part of the early stage discovery and then as we license out that compound to our partner in parallel to that we can be developing a companion diagnostic so that in both their clinical trials and once they get the drug on market we can have a diagnostic that aligns with  a very high probability of actually having a positive response to that drug. Our whole mission in precision medicine is to get the right drug to the right patient and we believe our technology, you know, cannot solve the whole world's problems but we can make a significant difference in some of these areas.

I: Tell us about HTG’s biggest strength.

JL: First, it is a big universe. You have a DNA universe, an RNA universe, and a protein universe. However, the RNA world is now greatly expanding, and people are starting to appreciate that RNA is a very interesting molecule. It is an interesting biomarker, and it has been discovered that you actually can drug RNA or drug the RNA modified proteins that are coded from RNA. So that makes that that segment of the market very interesting and we have best-in-class technology for the interrogation and the analysis of RNA. So, it is an incredibly good fit and at least as it relates to RNA, we believe we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us both in our molecular profiling business and in our drug discovery business.

I: How is HTG leading innovation in this industry?

JL: Today, if you wanted to do a full transcriptome RNA analysis you can do it, but it is extremely tedious to perform. You would basically need to extract RNA from a sample, you need to go through a process called reverse transcription to turn it into a cDNA molecule, then you are going to sequence the cDNA molecule and then you have to reinterpret that back into an RNA language if you will. And that process really has several limitations:

First, it requires a lot of very pure RNA to actually get the job done.

Second, it is a very sophisticated and complicated workflow and in a perfect world might take you seven or eight days but in the real world it probably takes you three or four weeks.

Then the last part of that is the bioinformatic interpretation of the data that you get back. It is very difficult with the incumbent technologies.

The HTG technology solves all of those problems. We work with about a tenth of the sample that is required by the incumbent technology. You can get data from sample to answer in using our technology in about two and a half days, and our bioinformatic analysis takes minutes not days or weeks. So, we really take something that is exceedingly difficult today and we turn it into something that is actually very doable for all laboratories, not just very specialized central core laboratories.

I: What is your vision of the company’s future?

JL: Well, the vision is clear – we are trying to improve patient care. All of us and our families and our lives have been impacted by a disease. Cancer is an especially horrible one. I have my story; I am sure you have yours. That is what gets us out of bed and that is what motivates us every single day. When we started with the company, we knew that we were inadequate. We started this company with a 47-plex technology, and we knew it had to go into the thousands. And now that we have graduated to do a 20,000 gene transcriptome product, we believe we can actually use the power of our technology across the entire human transcriptome and across all disease states. Our technology solves real problems, it is a very robust technology. In the real world you have less sample, you do not have more. You have less time; you do not have more. So, the ability to have a technology that is useful, that you can actually use with high reliability, which enables you to do things you otherwise just cannot do, opens doors of opportunity. Whether it is looking at disease in the profiling business or using that technology to inform intelligent drug design. That is why I am so excited about where this company is right now and the opportunities that are immediately ahead of us.

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Page last updated September 15, 2022