A Conversation with SBI’s Chief Scientific Officer, Joe Cremonese
Joe Cremonese is Scientific Bioprocessing, Inc. (SBI)’s Chief Scientific Officer (CSO). For more than four decades he has been at the forefront of bioprocessing instrument and tool innovation.
Prior to becoming SBI’s CSO, Cremonese served as Vice President of Corporate Planning at Fisher Scientific Company, President of Laboratory Innovation Company, Ltd., President of Proteomics, and Director of Scientific Industries (SI). Along with Drs. Govind Rao and Joe Qualitz, he played an instrumental role in commercializing their sensing technology by forming Fluorometrix Corp., which would eventually become SBI after being acquired by SI in 2013.
Today, Cremonese continues his storied career as he leads the SBI’s product development and application efforts. We connected recently with Cremonese to gather his perspectives on bioprocessing’s past, present, and future, as well as his thoughts on what’s next for SBI.
Tell me about how you became interested in cell biology and your career path to becoming SBI’s Chief Scientific Officer.
I was inspired by an old philosophy professor of mine to get into cell biology, but I was really self-educated in many ways. My father wanted me to be a tool designer and die maker. I apprenticed with my father when I was 16. I eventually went to college on the G.I. Bill, and I studied physiology, chemistry, and biology.
I received my first patent in 1989 for growing cells ex-vivo. This patent started with work I did at Johns Hopkins University on a bone marrow transplant between two brothers. The patient developed Graft versus Host Disease (GvHD) because the donor brother’s cells became antigenic for the recipient. We then developed these cells ex-vivo to remove these antigenic cells. I eventually licensed this patent in 1992 to Aastrom Biosciences for development into an ex-vivo stem cell growth and differentiation system.
While I was at a company called Proteomics, I ran into Joe Qualitz in the cafeteria of the office building where we both had small labs right next to one another. I knew that Govind Rao had the sensor technology but didn’t have a commercial product yet. Govind and Joe eventually licensed parts of their technology to Sartorius, but they kept a piece to themselves. Govind and Joe eventually founded Fluorometrix Corp. and as Director of Scientific Industries I recommended that we acquire Flourometrix’s assets, and we did. The royalties from the earlier Sartorius licensing agreement really set us on our way to where we are today.
John Moore came on board and took over for me as Chairman of the Board for Scientific Industries. We renamed Fluorometrix Corp. Scientific Bioprocessing, Inc. in 2013 and I became the company’s Chief Scientific Officer.
Over the course of your career, you’ve been a firsthand witness to how cell culture sensing and monitoring has evolved. What are the field’s origins and how are SBI’s sensors illustrative of the current high point in this monitoring and sensing evolution?
Since the mid-1960s research scientists have been using dye to measure pH. This was and is a very subjective approach that is primitive but still in use today. With this approach you miss the whole point by seeing pH changes too late. If pH goes out of the acceptable range that means trouble for the cells.
The Clark electrode has been the standard monitoring device in the industry for years and at 100% oxygen they are very accurate. However, cells live in oxygen levels between 6% and 12%. That’s why SBI’s optical sensors are more effective; the less oxygen quenched the cells are, the better the signal and the more accurate the reading. SBI’s sensors enable real-time monitoring of pH and dissolved oxygen and we’re working on being able to monitor glucose and lactate as well.
The optical sensors we’ve developed provide research scientists early warning signs that allow cell culture adjustments in real-time.
The field has learned a lot over the years via the Human Genome Project and other advancements, but cell biology hasn’t really kept up. Cell biologists tend to not understand physiology and that human conditions don’t occur in cell cultures. There is still a lot of vertical thinking in the field. What the field needs is pragmatic physiological tool design, which is what our sensors provide.
Science is about finding new ways forward, yet there is often a resistance to new approaches that buck conventional wisdom, like using SBI’s optical sensors instead of electrodes. How can SBI help research scientists get comfortable with using SBI’s sensors?
For research scientists to adopt SBI’s optical sensors on a more widespread level, we have to create a way that is comfortable for them.
Our sensors are not a quantum leap for their processes, but we’ll be there to help them every step of the way until they can turn around and explain the process to us. That’s when we’ll know we’re headed in the direction of greater openness and adoption of our sensors.
You’ve been an inventor of patented technology, a boardroom executive, and a leader in the field for more than four decades. What are the best pieces of advice you can give to research scientists and executive leaders seeking to improve their cell culture processes and commercial execution, respectively?
For the research scientists I’d say listen to what the cells are telling you. That’s why we use sensors. The cells will tell you if they want more nutrition, more oxygen. Listen to the cells. We’ll learn more about what the cells can tell us as we learn their language. The more sensing we have, the more fluent we’ll become in the language of cells.
For executive leaders, I’d offer that you have to find a way to marry business, science, and engineering. You have to know how to build a company and how to use technology to do it. You have to know what the field needs – this is a really important part of the equation. I think Reinhard Vogt, our new Chairman, gets it. So does John Moore, our President. John has the unique ability to get people with different perspectives to work well together. He has an ability to use the natural tension of differing opinions and views to create a stronger cable. That’s why
SBI has been successful and what I’d offer as advice to other leaders at life science companies.
What is next for SBI on the product development front?
We have a lot of exciting products in development right now. SBI is not just an optical sensor company. Our sensing technology enables us to design a whole series of products that will improve upstream processes and that could eventually enhance the downstream processes as well. Generally speaking, upstream processes have not kept up with innovations downstream.
Ultimately, in order to fight viruses and create new therapies, we’ll have to grow trillions of cells to perform necessary research over the next decade. In order to do this, we have to have greater control of the cell culture environment, and SBI’s sensors will play a critical role in helping the field learn the language of cells to help them grow more efficiently and in greater numbers.