In episode 65 of 17 Minutes of Science, we sat down with our very own Dr. Chris Hopkins. Chris is the Chief Scientific Officer here at InVivo Biosystems and is actively involved with customer projects and communications. Chris pioneered the commercialization of C. elegans transgenics at his previous company, Knudra, which he cofounded in 2009. In 2017, Chris joined the InVivo Biosystems team as CSO when Knudra was acquired by InVivo Biosystems (FKA NemaMetrix). As a scientist turned entrepreneur, he now pioneers the application of humanized animal models for discoveries in personalized medicine and natural products. Tune in to this episode to learn more from Chris about his career arc and hear his advice on how to make science your career one you are passionate about – whether it is academia, industry, or entrepreneurship.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:00:10] Hello and welcome to 17 Minutes of Science, our show that explores the world of science and how it affects both the starting academic and the seasoned professional. I am Hannah Houston, and today I am joined by Dr Chris Hopkins, the CSO here at InVivo Biosystems. Chris pioneered the commercialization of C. elegans transgenics. As a scientist turned entrepreneur, he now pioneered the application of humanized animal models for discoveries in personalized medicine and natural products. Welcome, Chris. I’m very excited to get to talk to you today.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:00:43] Well, thanks for having me on the show. I’m excited to participate.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:00:49] We are very excited to have you, so I am now starting my 17 minute timer and we will jump right into questions.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:00:57] Okay.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:00:58] So to begin, what got you interested in science and what was the first thing that got you really excited about pursuing this career?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:01:10] I’ve sort of had science in my blood. My dad’s been a scientist, so it’s been sort of ingrained into me from a very early start. But, you know, in college, it’s probably about the time when I when I jumped into a lab and got into the lab of – a lab, called it was [Baldomero] Toto Olivera’s lab and what he worked on was cone snails and they’re highly venomous snails that eat live fish. And so one of the things I did there is I studied the snail toxins and then I found a way to actually extract the toxins by figuring out how to milk a snail, which is basically, how do you take a snail and get its venom out of it? And we published on that, and that’s an intriguing story in itself.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:01:57] Yeah, fascinating. I did not actually know that you could milk a snail, uh, learning something new every day I guess. That was probably an experience.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:02:06] Yeah. Yeah. So so, you know, when you ask: how do you milk a snail? Well, so these snails are little cone snails. They send out a thing called a sort of a tongue, but it’s a proboscis, and it’s a very long thing that looks a little bit like a worm as it snakes out of their mouth. And when they sense a fish, they send this out and they’re usually buried in the sand. And so a fish goes, ‘oo yum, worm!’ – goes to eat the worm, and then the worm has a little harpoon in it, and it’s hollow and it injects a very potent bolus of neurotoxins into the animal, so it immediately paralyzes it with rigid paralysis. And then the snail goes, it sort of bursts out of the sand and pulls back in its its tongue and then engulfs the fish and gets a really nice meal.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:02:51] Oh my gosh, wow, that is. Pretty amazing. So you went from –
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:02:58] – that really sparked me in science, that’s what got me going.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:03:01] It would definitely spark me to. That sounds amazing. So you went from these poisonous snails to C. elegans. How did you make that transition from one model to another?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:03:14] Well, right, that was – yeah, it’s kind of a jump, so that undergraduate work led me to go through a few labs and then got into graduate school in Boston, working in biochemistry and then got into a lab at the University of Utah doing genetics. And that’s where I got into C. elegans, and found it a very, very useful model for for genetics. It’s a very potent, powerful model. And in fact, I got involved in one of the first sort of gene editing techniques, which was called the mosque technique that allows you to introduce DNA at a site specific locus. And and we published that and then I took that and commercialize that technology and launched a company called Knudra. And once we launched Knudra, we grew that business for a little while and then found this other company, which which we know of very well. At the time, it was called NemaMetrics. We merged, merged together and formed a company that brought the instrumentation and the phenotype and capacity, together with the ability to engineer the genome of C. elegans and created a nice system for creating data packages for clients. In fact, at the same time, about that time, we were also got into doing zebrafish. So we offer two different alternative animal models the zebrafish and the C. elegans.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:04:36] That we do. So can you tell us just a little bit more about starting Knudra? You went from being an academic to founding a company? That’s pretty impressive.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:04:50] Well, right, you know, it is sort of scary when you’re in graduate school going, Oh my, what am I? What am I going to do with my life? You know, the phenomenon is that you come out of your – either graduate school or postdoc – 10 percent. Only 10 percent of those people make it into an academic position. So, so what do other 90 percent do? Most of them go into academia or do something else. So the ‘do something else aspect’ was mine. It was like, I think I might have a technology here, you know, the mosque technology, and I might go ahead and try and commercialize it. So I decided to do that. And that was scary. But I had my dad as a mentor, so my dad is a biochemist and he worked in, uh, as an academic and then he went into industry – and I did actually about a year long stint in the industry. But he did a many year long stint in the industry, and then he started his own company. So I had a, I had a role model there. My first role model was my papa. And and so if he can do it, I can do it too. And it was a struggle for those first couple of years. Very tough going. But we were able to hit stride in a couple of years in and really start cranking away and start making money.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:06:03] That sounds like you definitely have the entrepreneurial blood in your veins if your dad experienced that as well. Good to have mentors, too.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:06:14] Oh Yeah.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:06:15] Can you tell us a little bit more about some experiences in your life that have led you to where you are today?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:06:23] Yeah. You know, you get these experiences for good or for bad know, I mean, once I got out of my post-doc and realized I just didn’t have that killer stack of publications. You know, it really forced my hand. I had been dreaming of being an academic in an ivory tower, and I really enjoy the process of scientific thinking and scientific study. But, you know, now – getting into where we are now in our group, we’ve now got essentially that, but we’ve got a little bit of profit motive going on. So, you know, the pivots that you have to take, the chances that you have to do, they’re scary, but they’re, they’re almost always rewarding. So, so, a wall comes up to you in front of your life and you start looking sideways, looking around the wall, looking at other ways and, and often those other alternative paths can be quite interesting to take.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:07:17] That is very true, and we’re glad you did take that alternative path. So you have touched on this a little bit, but were there any major events in your life that you view as turning points in your career?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:07:34] You know. You know, besides the sort of jumping from, I mean, going from an academia-focus to to: all right, let’s try the entrepreneurship. You know, another big turning point was when I was sort of, well, working together with an incredible team at Knudra. You know, we went into a merger, and that was a very scary time and it was a very, you know – what does it mean on the other side of a merger? That has been, that was quite an adventure. To get through that we, we had some, some challenges from – not everybody on our our team was aligned with doing the merger. And it was a very tough time. And I struggled hard with that, essentially to get everybody on my side on board with the merger. But we did. And that that merged entity now InVivo Biosystems and now I feel like that’s been a winner approach to have taken.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:08:38] Yeah, we are, you know, so happy that you have continued on with InVivo Biosystems as well, it’s so – such a pleasure to get to work with you every day. So, in your view, what are the skills you need to be successful in a startup as a scientist?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:08:59] You know, we’re trained as scientists to be very independent to to, you know, drive your own questions. To take the idea and keep chasing it, and move forward. But it’s actually very, sort of insular. Very, very kind of self-oriented. Yes, you do a lot of collaborative meetings and you get to challenge the assumptions you’re making and so on. So there is a collaboration, but I would say when you goes to getting out of academia and going to industry, it becomes much, much more oriented towards a team. So learning how to be a good team player has been a challenge. But it’s a very important thing because the the level of success you can get from from, a well-oiled mindshare is amazing. And that’s the one thing that I’ve sort of really learned and it has been a big difference. I’m still learning the process, but I think it’s a very important one to learn: how to work well together with a team and hit objectives.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:09:56] It’s funny because that is definitely a theme that has come up in many of these 17 Minutes interviews, is just the collaboration that is needed to progress science forward. Whether you’re an academic or you’re an industry, collaboration is definitely key.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:10:12] Agreed. Agreed. Collaboration is a winning approach.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:10:16] Yes. So, your title with us is CSO, but I feel like that doesn’t even begin to encompass what you do. You also are very involved in the sales process, and you work closely with many of our customers. What do you enjoy most about working with customers?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:10:36] Well, you know, as an academic and you first ask, ‘ew could I do sales?’ You know, it’s almost an anathema. You know, it’s like ew. But you know what, once I – so when I first – one of the things I did right after trying my entrepreneurship is realized how profoundly ignorant I was. And so I went and got an MBA and I learned sales techniques. You know, just, the whole encompassing how to do a business and grow a business and the analytics you can do in sales. They’re very scientific. You know, a, b, testing and so on. And I really, I really like that. I like I like the fact that you can sort of test out your hypotheses in the market with people. You know, like: does this message work or does that message work? And so actually, you know, I found it to actually be a surprisingly comfortable place to be. And I’m a fairly outgoing person, so I love talking to new people. And so, I say one of the thrills about it is, just trying to meet the needs of the customer and trying to understand what they’re doing and ask: ‘can we can we be of help?’
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:11:40] Yeah, I mean, I think that you you really hit the nail on the head there in that many people at first kind of recoil a bit at the idea of doing sales. But yeah, it’s so data driven that it can be very engaging as well.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:11:56] Yeah, it can feed them intellectual plus the emotional, so it’s actually quite quite fun.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:12:01] It is, yes. So jumping back a little bit to something you alluded to earlier, but I’d love to talk a little bit more about important mentors in your life. So you mentioned your dad. But yeah, if you could just expand a little bit about who were some of the most important mentors to you throughout your life and in your career?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:12:22] Sure. Sure. Well, dad’s been a really important one. Papa encouraged me to do science fairs as a little kid and in fact, I was able to win the state fair and go on to the international science fair. So I’ve been a geek through and through my entire life, pretty much. Um, got into school and got into Toto’s lab and had had a blast as an undergrad, just being in the lab. I’ve basically being given a long leash in most of the positions I’ve gotten into and allowed to just explore at will. And that’s that’s the inventive side that, you know, that aspect of science that I just absolutely love. Just exploring questions. And then, well, graduate school. Dean Tolan was my advisor there, taught me biochemistry, and really, that was a very eye-opening area to go down. And then Eric Jorgensen for my postdoc, long postdocs, a seven-year postdoc, I definitely liked that postdoc. But was able to take technology out of there and commercialize it. And you know, I’ve had a lot of mentors in my life that have been – and and team members. I mean, you know, like like, I consider my co-founder at Knudra to be Trisha Brock. She’s a mentor for me and a great friend. And many of the team at InVivo Biosystems, just about everybody. There’s a lot of people there, you know, that have been very inspiring to me.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:13:54] I count my blessings fairly often that I get to work with such an amazing group of people, so it’s always wonderful to hear that other people feel the same way as well.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:14:07] Yeah, yeah, it’s it’s, you know, it’s been a scary path to to take these different turns and go and go down. But but it’s almost always rewarding when you, when you either look over your shoulder or you look to the right or to look to the left and go, hmm, I wonder what’s over there?
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:14:22] Yes, asking questions often is definitely key. So we have just a, just a few moments left, and I was wondering if you wanted to end by sharing any advice you would give to someone who may be in a similar situation you were once in: an academic who isn’t quite sure where they want to go, and do they want to do industry? Or do they want to do academia? And, you know, potentially thinking of even starting their own company. What advice would you give to someone like that?
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:14:55] Yeah, that’s a good one. Envision questing is this is important, you know, asking yourself, where do I want to be six months from now? You know, just trying to ask, you know, well, I can do this and do that. All right. What’s the next one? Where am I going to be a one year from now, where am I going to be two years from now. Take it all the way out to five years and ask: where would I like to be in five years? And then, and then, you know, if you’re finding that’s an interesting place, I want to be in academia or I want to be in an industry or I want to have a successful startup, take it back, baby steps. What are my little steps to get there? So. So, vision – you know, trying to just ask, where do you want to be in a few years and then try and figure out what the steps to get there? I mean, that’s a little bit of it’s just random walk, but a lot of it is premeditated thought.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:15:42] No, I think that’s that’s a great plan, because you’re not going to reach your goals if you don’t think about what your goals even are.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:15:48] Yeah, yeah, are got to be time bound. You got to say I want to be X by Y.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:15:52] Yes, very true. Well, Chris, thank you so much for joining us today on 17 Minutes of Science. It is a pleasure to get to work with you every day and to share a little bit more of your story with our audience as well today was a real treat, so thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.
Dr Chris Hopkins (Guest): [00:16:14] It was my pleasure and thank you for the honor.
Hannah Huston (Host): [00:16:17] Thank you, Chris. Well, everyone, thank you so much for tuning in today to 17 Minutes of Science. We will see you next time. Bye.