As part of his ongoing effort to drive biotech growth in New Haven county, on Feb. 2 U.S. Senator Chris Murphy took a meeting with the team of Ancera, Inc., a paradigm-shifting start-up in Branford's growing biotech community.
In 2016, Ancera launched PIPER™, a high-tech, desktop box that's a gamechanger in the race to rapidly identify pathogens in the food supply chain. The PIPER platform uses Ancera's MagDrive™ fluid/magnet system for rapid cell separation. By rapidly sorting complex samples (such as fecal matter) down to single-cell levels, PIPER can zero in on a contaminate, such as Salmonella, within just one to eight hours. That crushes current standard testing times of 30 to 50 hours, which requires growing bacteria in a culture and sending the sample to a lab to quantify pathogen levels.
By rapidly detecting contaminants, PIPER not only prevents the spread of foodborne pathogens, but also heads off food recalls and caps food waste. Accurate and user-friendly, the system can be operated by food plant quality control staffers with no background in biology.
On Feb. 2, Ancera founder Arjun Ganesan described Piper's potential impact on microbial risk assessment for the chicken food processing industry, which is currently Ancera's focus. Ganesan also discussed his team's work to make inroads with the nation's handful of mega-producers in the chicken industry.
Joined by Branford State Rep. Lonnie Reed (D, District 102), Murphy also took a tour of the Branford facility, including a stop in Ancera's lab, where PIPER machines were running tests to detect Salmonella. The morning visit concluded with a Town Hall-style meeting, where Ancera's local team of about a dozen employees heard an update from Murphy on his efforts to assist area biotech firms, and gave him their input.
Murpy, the junior U.S. Senator from Connecticut and a member of the Democratic Party, has held his senate seat since 2013. He said he hopes to see the greater New Haven area booming with tech companies over the next 10 years. At the state level, Murphy said he's encouraging focusing state dollars and marketing attention on this area, to help those sectors continue to grow.
"I spend a lot of time thinking about the potential of greater New Haven as a global player in tech," he said. "I just think you're getting to a saturation point in the three or four mega-centers for tech, such that a lot of people in the industry think that, in the next 10 to 15 years, you're going to have a diffusion of talent and of concentration into a set of secondary cities."
Murphy counted Yale University as a key player in helping to bring recognition to the area as a growing tech center. Ganesan, a Yale alumus, noted companies are also pulling in highly qualified employees from other area universities.
"We have people from UCONN, we have people from Western New England [University]; there's a number of schools here," said Ganesan. "And while Yale has global recognition; we've found high quality people from a number of these other places."
Ancera's Vice President of Operations, Maharshi Trivedi, told Murphy an obstacle to growth is the area's travel infrastructure.
"In my mind, a [biotech] hub has been established [but] the hurdle has been infrastructure and the ability for employees to move around quickly and smoothly," said Trivedi.
"You can't grow New Haven's economy without solving the transit problem," Murphy agreed, adding he felt improved rail transit is the best hope; but that entails supporting the Federal Rail Administration's proposed $150 billion, 10-year investment plan for upgrading the Northeast corridor with high-speed rail. There will be pushback involving the politics surrounding how the money is raised and how the infrastructure is sited, he said.
"There are going to be lots of people who are going to say, 'No way I want to pay for this,' and 'No way I want a new rail line going in my backyard.' The problem with change is the people that have something to lose always speak more loudly than those who have something to gain," said Murphy.
He encouraged Ancera's employees to "...speak up on those questions."
Ganesan suggested the next generation of tech companies need even more transit travel speed, including jet and helicopter services. While American Airlines now offers jet service between Tweed-New Haven airport and Philadelphia, PA, more major cities need to be added, in his opinion, said Ganesan. Ganesan also suggested Murphy and CT's other Washington D.C. leaders could follow California's lead on its high speed rail project. The project is actively underway with work to develop high speed rail running between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2029.
Murphy noted there's one rail authority for the CA project, versus nine different authorities along Northeast corridor. To bring them together would require setting up something along the lines of the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority corporation, and that would bring "tremendous push back," he said.
"So the first thing you've got to do is set up one authority which runs, controls and finances the entirety of the Northeast corridor -- that's one of the politically unpopular things. But you certainly can't consider something transformational, like underground service, unless everyone's making decisions together," Murphy said.
The last issue Ancera employees addressed with Murphy was the direct impact of current U.S. immigration policy changes. Both Ganesan and Trivedi grew up in India; and the company employs multiple people from various countries of origin, said Ganesan.
"One of our oldest employees went to Yale [and] we call her mother of PIPER, because she pretty much built that box in there," Ganesan told Murphy, "[Last month] her H-1B was actually rejected. She was given 10 days to leave the country."
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the H-1B visa allows U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.
"It's shocking, because she is a model citizen," Ganesan said. "And so right now, we're figuring out what we can do to get her back in the country...it was incredibly surprising, for someone with such high credentials."
Murphy said his day began with getting feedback from residents at a Waterbury diner, where the general tone showed support for the Trump administration's crack-down on immigration policies.
"We have a lot of work to do to explain the true story of immigration, and why this country needs to be the place where every single smart person comes from all over the world," said Murphy. "If you are smart, and you want to make something amazing, you need to come to this country; and we will celebrate that."
Murphy said current changes to immigration policy "...will end up in lots of people born in America getting great jobs. If that's all you care about -- people born in American getting great jobs -- the way to do that is to bring people into this country who are creating ground-breaking technology like what you're doing. So it's interesting to come here [and hear this]. This [company] exists because of smart immigration policies. On the heels of talking to a bunch of others who had thought we had gotten it all wrong; it just sort of speaks to the challenge we have."