Out of the box...and into the pool

Not all of Richard Ash's projects involve potential start-ups. His students have twice used INCOGEN, a well-established Williamsburg-based bioinformatics firm, as a basis for projects. It was a mutually rewarding experience.

"I have to say, we got a good bit of information out of it," said Maciek Sasinowski, INCOGEN CEO. "It wasn't anything that made us a billion-dollar company, but the students worked very hard and I was very impressed with the insights they were able to gain after a relatively short amount of time and fairly limited conversations with us."

Sasinowski is a William and Mary alum, as are several of his employees, and the firm has enjoyed a cordial working relationship with the College. INCOGEN has even been involved in a number of research collaborations with William and Mary faculty and other researchers, so the company was a natural subject for Ash's working groups.

"Even at the very first meeting, they were well informed," Sasinowski said. "It wasn't one of those meetings where they just showed up and had to be told what INCOGEN was about. They clearly spent time on our web site getting acquainted with our company and industry and came prepared--it made a good first impression. I asked them to take a close look at our current business model and our strategy, and to explore whether there were other uses for our technology for which it made sense to consider outside financing, like venture capital."

He said he incorporated some of the group's insights into his operation, and was impressed by one group's "what else can it do?" suggestion. The groups were apparently inspired by the success of INCOGEN's cooperative effort with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to adapt technologies originally developed for the analysis of biomolecular data for use on marine buoys monitoring the state of wind, waves and water in the York River.

"So the students thought that we should use our existing technology to develop a consumer-level product to remotely monitor water quality in swimming pools," Sasinowski said. "The idea was to attach a probe to one of those automatic pool cleaners and have it send data to your home computer to tell you the pool temperature, pH and let you know if there's a problem. We didn't pursue that, because ultimately we felt it would defocus us too much, but it was refreshing to see the students think out of the box.  That's what business is all about, whether in the start-up phase or ten years down the road, and it was clear that Professor Ash inspired and encouraged those attitudes in his students."