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Thermal Gradient: A biotech firm fighting to take flight

Bob Juncosa has a passion for old airplanes.

"This is one of the models that I made," Juncosa says. "This is a 1915 Sopwith Pup."

Juncosa points to a photo on his smartphone. It's an old biplane built to quarter scale. It has a wingspan of about eight feet.

Asked why he builds vintage airplanes, Juncosa says it's pretty much the same reason he runs a biotech company.

"It's the challenge of 'No one's done that, now let's see if we can go do that,' " Juncosa says. The tricky part with both a biplane and a company, he says, is to "get it off the ground and make it work."

Fighting HIV/AIDS

Juncosa is the chief technology officer at Thermal Gradient. It's the fifth startup he's been involved with.

"Thermal Gradient's main mission in life is to make DNA testing a lot simpler, a lot less expensive and a lot faster," Juncosa explains.

The idea is to mass produce a small device that can test for HIV in third world countries. At this point, most of Thermal Gradient's funding comes from the National Institutes of Health to do just that.

The company's device is basically a one-inch-squared copy machine that makes enough DNA for doctors to work with. The process of multiplying target DNA is known as PCR.

Juncosa says Thermal Gradient's technology can be used for anything from water purity testing to the stuff you see on CSI.

"We can certainly apply our technology to forensics, we can certainly apply it to infectious diseases," Juncosa says. "But right now that's not where our funding is coming from."

Resource limited

The funding is the tricky part.

"Venture funding at large numbers, in terms of dollars, is not easy here," says Juncosa.

Thermal Gradient was partially venture funded by Rochester's Trillium Group in 2005. But overall, Juncosa says the lack of venture capital in the Rochester area is holding back biotech firms like his.

He says that wouldn't be the case in a place like California.

"It's like a well-oiled machine," Juncosa says. "You still have to have a viable design, but if you make a credible story, it's not hard to raise money. 

"Rochester is not that sort of environment."

The vexing part, Juncosa says, is that Rochester has the biotech talent. Thermal Gradient is housed alongside other biotech firms in the Rochester Bioventure Center in Henrietta

"Getting your business to go from a handful of people to one that's fully functional and fully on the market - that capital is hard to come by here," says Juncosa. "I think all of us are experiencing the same thing."

For now Thermal Gradient is soldiering on.

Juncosa says the five-person company is on the cusp of a real-time milestone he calls "the holy grail" of infectious disease detection.

That could make Thermal Gradient more attractive to potential buyers.

Despite the challenges of a cutthroat market, Juncosa says the big picture of his tiny product is what keeps him motivated. The former aerospace engineer switched to biomedicine after reading about the electrical inner workings of cancer cells. Juncosa says watching his life-saving devices take flight is the reason why he comes to work.

"It's just wonderful to birth these things and see them go into the market and improve people's lives."

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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