Branford’s IsoPlexis is on forefront of boosting jobs in Connecticut’s bioscience industry, crucial to state’s future economic growth

KENNETH R. GOSSELIN

Mar 29, 2021

Jobs in bioscience are showing signs of a comeback

BRANFORD — Nine years ago, a half-dozen professors at Yale and other universities envisioned a life sciences system that would aid researchers and drugmakers in evaluating how patients would respond to a treatment by pulling more information from individual cells.

Today, the idea has grown into Branford-based IsoPlexis Corp, a medical technology company that has expanded from about 40 employees in 2017 to 250, about 150 in Connecticut — with plans to double its workforce in the next few years. The company’s customers include some of the leading pharmaceutical companies, including, Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck & Co. and Genentech Inc.

After declining for two decades, jobs in bioscience are showing signs of a comeback for an industry economic development officials hope will play an important role in the state’s future. IsoPlexis, whose primary focus is on cancer but also infectious diseases including COVID-19, is part of an ecosystem of bioscience companies in Connecticut that now number over 1,000.

While still small compared with other Connecticut employment sectors such as defense and aerospace, bioscience is getting some national notice.

IsoPlexis and Guilford-based MRI maker Hyperfine Research grabbed spots this year’s “Fierce 15″ list by trade publication Fierce MedTech. The trade publication, widely followed in the industry, says it evaluates hundreds of companies compiling its list, looking for “big, breakthrough ideas that can move the needle and make a significant impact on patients’ lives.”

Yale scientist and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg talks with engineers in company's Guilford labs, in this 2018 file photo. Rothberg has developed Butterfly iQ, a $2,000 handheld ultrasound device that connects to an iPhone and that his company developed to replace the bulky and expensive ultrasound machines used currently.

The list included some of the largest bioscience markets, including four in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area.

Hyperfine, founded in 2014 by Yale scientist and entrepreneurial superstar Jonathan Rothberg, developed a portable MRI scanner that can be wheeled to a patient’s bedside for head and brain scans, which could prove advantageous for use in intensive care units.

Rothberg’s Quantum-Si, which uses semiconductor chips to “decode” proteins, recently announced plans to go public later this year via a merger. The merger with HighCape Capital Acquisition Corp. values the combined company at $1.46 billion.

The bioscience industry may be starting to carve out significant space and turning toward an upward job trajectory for university scientists and engineers and then, as the companies evolve and grow, all the jobs needed to run a business: sales, marketing and accounting. The sector also has the potential to create an increasing number of sought-after, high-paying jobs.

“You keep attracting more and more quality people,” Dan Wagner, senior managing director at Connecticut Innovations, a quasi-public state agency that invests in early-stage companies.

The state has been encouraging these high-tech entrepreneurial endeavors with investments by CI and InvestCT, which provides funding for Connecticut start-ups and small businesses through privately-managed venture capital funds.

CI has invested $7.5 million in IsoPlexis, which is now transitioning from a technology company to one focused on selling its instruments, software and providing service for what it sells. IsoPlexis has sales offices on the West Coast and in Europe and Asia and said it has sold about 120 of its instruments around the world, at an average cost of $200,000 each.

In one of the state’s biggest overtures to bioscience, Connecticut spent nearly $300 million to lure Jackson Laboratory to the UConn Health campus 10 years ago with the promise to create 300 jobs and re-ignite the industry here.

Ryan Brennan, managing director of Advantage Capital, said its investment in IsoPlexis provided a springboard for raising capital from a series of large, private investors. Earlier this year, one of those — at $135 million — was IsoPlexis’s largest.

IsoPlexis’s systems were used in a study sponsored by Merck aimed at trying to determine how drugs might be used on patients prone for a severe cases of COVID-19 to keep them out of intensive care units and increase chances of survival, Mackay said.

The company has quadrupled its space in Branford since 2017, now occupying 40,000 square feet.

For the near future, at least, Mackay said he expects IsoPlexis will be used in conjunction with research for new drug treatments. But the devices could one day be used in individual patient cases, he said.

“There are all sorts of approvals and processes to get there, but there’s a pathway and we have shown pathways that it could be used in that context,” Mackay said.

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at kgosselin@courant.com.