Entrepreneurial Faculty Member Seeks to Invent New Chromatography ToolsPeak Diagnostics—with laboratories located in the Technology Center incubator—is the latest start-up to emerge from our region’s long line of innovators developing products for the chromatography field, joining the likes of successful companies Supelco and Restek. 

Peak’s founder, Frank Dorman, is an Associate Professor in Penn State’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate students and also pursues research interests in gas and liquid chromatography fundamental characterization, instrumentation and column development, and application to trace analysis in complex sample matrices. 

Dorman’s interest in better understanding the applications for chromatography led him to create Peak Diagnostics. Operated first from a tiny space in his kitchen, then migrating to his basement, and finally to a dedicated laboratory at Innovation Park, the company is refining and customizing known chromatographic separation systems to better analyze and characterize samples using high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC).

The company’s goal is to develop HPLC columns that have greater power to achieve difficult separations than currently available products. These new systems will have immediate application in the areas of metabolomics (study of chemical and biological fingerprints created via metabolic processes) and pharmaceutical-product R&D.  “We’ve built a line of chemistries that retain—and are very receptive to—small polar molecules,” Dorman says. For example, in the field of medical diagnostics, “they can probe small molecule chemistry in the body and try to figure out if there are small markers or indicators that tell us if you’re prone to disease, if you have disease, or if you’re improving.” 

Another possible area of commercialization is forensic analysis:  “If you’re looking for explosive residues and you’re using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to do it, there’s not really a great solution that’s commercially available right now,” Dorman says. “We think we have something that’s considerably better—a product that is really good at holding onto these small polar molecules so that you can test for them.”

Dorman is no stranger to the private sector:  Prior to joining the faculty at PSU, he was the Director of Technical Development, at Restek Corporation, responsible for external research collaborations, new technology identification, and product development. His new company provides an ideal outlet to explore the commercial utility of his research. 

A $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation based on Dorman’s work during Peak Diagnostics’ formative years in his basement has allowed the company to hire an employee—Bill Campbell—who joined Dorman and his wife, Christine, as Peak Diagnostic’s third crew member and Principal Investigator on the NSF project.

These funds also allowed Peak to graduate to Innovation Park as it prepares to advance both its science and its business. Ready access to the Innovation Park staff and availability of business coursework through the TechCelerator program helped ease Dorman’s worries about the areas in which he lacked experience. 

For example, in the area of accounting, “The TechCelerator people and the Incubator people know those sorts of things and we don’t,” Dorman said. “I think without them and without that knowledge, we’d be in trouble. If someone wrote us a check for $250,000, we’d spend it on the right stuff but I probably wouldn’t have any tracking mechanism for it and it would be a problem.” 

“So those guys have been extremely helpful,” Dorman says. “It gave me a checklist, well you’re going to have to do this and this and this. They really made it almost seamless to be able to transfer from what I had planned to do at the university or in my house, to transfer up there with very little pain involved.”

Now, Peak Diagnostics is entering an exciting new phase. The company is nearly ready to begin marketing its findings and developing products to be used in collaboration with other companies. Landing the company in the collaborative environment of the Park’s incubator has provided an excellent foundation for this adventure as the area’s newest chromatographic pioneer.