Tony Hoang, Ph.D. chemistry candidate broke the University at Albany's student patent-pending record and recently launched his biotech startup Advanced Modular Instruments. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)

Tony Hoang did not grow up with much. As a boy he began tinkering with broken electronics his parents would buy at thrift stores, developing a knack for fixing the run-down equipment and thus stoking his passion for engineering.  Cable TV was not an option in his house, so PBS was a mainstay for entertainment. Hoang would run home after school to turn on episodes of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” his self-professed hero, who inspired him to become a scientist, he told Bioscience Technology.

Two bachelor’s degrees later and Hoang is now a Ph.D. chemistry candidate at the University at Albany, who just broke the university’s student patent-pending record and officially launched his biotech startup, Advanced Modular Instruments (AMI), earlier this month.

AMI is a scientific accessory company that aims to provide researchers with innovative tools that can help increase efficiency and productivity in the lab. The record-breaking six patents Hoang has received are for technologies that will be the core products of the business.

In January, Hoang was also the recipient of the Albany Business Review's Technology Entrepreneur Award.

Building on an idea

As a student Hoang did a lot of research based on RNA therapeutics and as he was working realized that many instruments made research efforts very time consuming and laborious, so he began building tools to help enhance research in chemistry and biology labs.

More people became interested and the university encouraged him to commercialize his ideas.  In April Hoang entered and won the University at Albany’s first Blackstone LaunchPad business competition, receiving $17,000 in prize money.

Hoang was then invited to the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit to pitch his company, with high-profile venture capitalists like Ashton Kutcher in attendance. He didn’t make it but was nominated again for the upcoming year and said that the experience was amazing.  At the Forbes event he was able to meet a lot of like-minded entrepreneurs from a variety of fields.

“Everyone was performing at the top level, so it was amazing to be able to connect with them and see how they did it,” Hoang said.

Every person he encountered seemed to have one thing in common – hardship.  The road to entrepreneurial success is not an easy one, and it pays off to be unconventional, Hoang said.

“They [entrepreneurs at the event] thought outside of the box, they did things that most people either criticized them for or were confused by why they were doing it. But at the end of the day they were extremely successful, so that gave me a lot of inspiration to just continue doing what I’m doing,” Hoang said. 

Hoang received a lot of guidance from and gives credit to Jan Woodcock, the director of the Blackstone Launchpad competition, who was vital in helping develop the business.

“He [Woodcock] is awesome, I haven’t had that type of support before,” Hoang said. “He literally would pull all-nighters for me, I give him credit for that.”

Hoang also acknowledged a wealth of help and support from his two academic advisors, Alan Chen, assistant professor at University of Albany and Ken Halvorsen, senior staff scientist at the RNA Institute.

Making the lab more efficient

AMI has two main components to it.  One aspect digitizes what Hoang calls “dumb” instruments, and makes them into smart instruments so researchers can actually monitor in real time what is going on in an experiment.  The instruments are very easy to use, can improve efficiency and drop costs, Hoang said. The second aspect is diagnostics.  One of his patents deals with an instrument that can detect micro RNA, the smallest segment of DNA or RNA, something no other instrument on the market is capable of, Hoang said.

Since the instrument is able to detect such a small strand, it can actually then be retrofitted to detect larger strands like viruses, bacteria and fungi.

“This will change the way diagnostics will happen,” Hoang said. “We have the potential to detect strands much quicker and much faster than any other conventional instruments out there.”

Another patent deals with a centrifuge machine attachment that aids scientists in monitoring the separation of particles.

Hoang couldn’t go into greater detail about his patents as the technology is proprietary, but more information should be available in the coming months he said.

One interesting feature of the instruments is that everything is modular, so scientists can swap out detectors based on the type of experiment they want to perform.

“There’s a base that has the brains of the instrument, the computer system and everything, and then there’s the modular instrument part where you literally just swap it out like a Lego brick and can then put in whatever detector desired,” Hoang said.

Hoang is in the process of finalizing parts of his business; he recently published peer-reviewed scientific papers for validation, and has the protections in place, so the next step is commercialization.  While he’s already built preliminary prototypes, he’s currently in the process of building the final prototype, which he hopes to complete in the next month and then be able to mass manufacture.

Learning curve

Clearly an avid learner who is not afraid of a challenge, Hoang is a one-man team, overseeing all aspects of his business.  With degrees in chemistry and biochemistry he had the hard sciences covered, but had to teach himself other parts that he was not familiar with. Hoang learned to program, to wire and do all of the technical engineering. 

“Because my instrument actually has to go into something that applies a lot of force to it, I had to learn how to do force simulations,” Hoang said.

Manufacturing was another new area for Hoang, and he purchased six of his own 3D printers, and learned how to CAD and manufacture products.

The most challenging part was learning the business and law side, which was an entirely new field for Hoang. Wary of getting ripped off, as he said many biotech startups do, he taught himself as much as possible to ensure he was taking his business down the right path.

However, in the end the hard work seems to be worth it.

“The most rewarding thing is knowing that I did things my way, I did things differently, that most people don’t do, and it finally paid off,” Hoang said.

As for his future, Hoang anticipates a 2017 graduation date and beyond that is hopeful that the AMI will be a success and eventually get bought out. If the company is not sold off, Hoang sees himself pushing ahead full time with AMI to help scientists improve their overall experience with research.

“I would love to be able to provide them [scientists] with a tool that they can use to be able to increase their efficiency, not spend a lot of money, and not be hassled with a bogged down experience.”

When asked what advice he has for other young people who are interested in starting a business or becoming entrepreneurs Hoang said: “What I learned was that if you follow the crowd, then you really don’t travel further than where the crowd leads.”

He stressed the importance of unconventional thinking and perseverance.

“My best advice would just be to do whatever you’re going to do, and think outside the box. You’re going to get criticized but just know that you’re doing something new that no one else is doing and you just keep going.”

Contributing Editor/Science Writer