We are proud and excited to share a recent interview with our president Dr. Ines Moretti for the Spanish language publication Chile Global (May 12, 2016).
Dr. Moretti was sought out for the interview specifically because of her success both as an entrepreneur in biotech and as a working mother.
Click here for the original article, or find an English translation below:
Pharmaceutical chemist [Dr. Ines Moretti] studied at the University of Chile and made a career in the United States, where she was a leader in the development of reagents for rapid diagnostic tests … while raising three children.
She was born in Bergamo, in northern Italy, but is considered as Chilean as anyone. Because of her father’s work as a corn and flour mill engineer, she came to our country as a 5-year-old and spent her childhood in Quilpué, Talagante, Osorno and Illapel. It was here that she discovered her scientific vocation.
“Since childhood I have wanted to know how things work. When I was given a doll I took it apart to see how it said ‘Mama’ or why it moved its eyes! Of course I could never put it together again, ” says Ines Moretti, who today is president of Pyxis Laboratories, a biotechnology company she founded with her Chilean husband in California, USA.
It was in high school, at Colegio Santa Teresa de Jesús, where she had her first encounter with chemistry. A disaster, she says, “because I understood absolutely nothing.” Because her parents were always supportive, they hired the owner of a local pharmacy for private tutoring. And thanks to this teacher everything changed. “It was fabulous. The way she explained it made it so easy to understand. She was able to make me see how beautiful and simple chemistry could me once you understood,” she recalls.
In 1968 she took the newly created Scholastic Aptitude Test and went directly into Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Chile. “I never wanted me to get into medicine; first because I did not want the responsibility for another’s life, and second because I wanted to do research,” she explains. “I read a book at age 15, called Microbe Hunters, all about Pasteur, Koch and the pioneers of microbiology, and ever since then I wanted to do that,” she added.
Her time at the university was the first major hurdle to overcome. “It was very challenging. Ninety students started the program and less than half finished, “says the scientist from her office in Grass Valley, near Sacramento, the state capital of California. Ines did her thesis in microbiology, with a project on prawns developed for the Fisheries Development Institute (IFOP). Then came the second challenge: a move to the United States with her husband, biochemist Francisco Rojas, who had received an offer to do a postdoc in Augusta, Georgia. There, Ines began her academic career as a research assistant at Georgia Medical College and had her first child. It was the beginning of the third challenge: balancing work and family.
“We had no money at all. I had to leave my baby in daycare but if she was sick I could not work,” she says. Then came two more children.
They moved to Texas, where her husband completed another postdoc at the famed Baylor College of Medicine, and she got a job as a researcher at the same institution. “My goal was always to do research, laboratory work. I never wanted to pursue the academic/administrative,” she emphasizes.
What followed was a fortunate succession of jobs and postgraduate studies that allowed her to delve into biochemistry and molecular biology at the Universities of Texas and California, Irvine (UC Irvine), south of Los Angeles. In this last institution, she became Laboratory Director of Biochemistry at Hitachi Chemical Research Center, where she worked identifying and cloning antigens and markers to detect infertility in men and women. At the same time, rapid diagnostic tests similar to those used to determine or rule out pregnancy time were being generally developed. In the search for new applications, Ines realized that the necessary reagents, available through a single supplier, were not good enough and unreliable. “That’s when I said I can do this better.” That was the birth of a new professional direction for her and her husband.
Founded in 1998, Pyxis Laboratories Inc is a company dedicated to the design and production of chemical and biological reagents for diagnostic kits, including rapid screening of various substances, such as cocaine, opiates, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants.
“If someone arrives to a hospital unconscious, you should know if it is due to an overdose and of which drug. With these rapid tests, two drops of urine is enough, and in five minutes you can know if a person is under the influence of some substance,” says the entrepreneur.
These rapid detection systems are widely used by US companies, police departments and even rehabilitation institutions that need to monitor whether a patient is complying with a drug treatment program.
The company is one of three suppliers of these types of conjugates for manufacturers of diagnostic tests and sells US$1.3 million a year.
“Our main markets are the US, Europe and Asia. We hope to work in Latin America as soon as a rapid tests manufacturer incorporates in the area,” assert the founders of Pyxis Labs.
In fact, the company has tried to explore joint ventures with Chilean biotechnology companies but have been unable to do so, partly because of bureaucratic obstacles. “A big problem is the Chilean banking system. Foreign companies cannot open accounts, nor Chileans who live outside of the country. It is very difficult to do business with Chile in this regard. I don’t know how other people do it,” Ines complains.
“Despite the growing problem of drug abuse worldwide, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in these types of tests in Latin America yet,” concludes the chemist.