Jeffrey Draa, CEO – Joining the Fight Against Covid-19 from the Nano Scale

A fresh Q&A series featuring ambassadors of innovation and technology, fueling entrepreneurship at UC San Diego and beyond

Graphene-based sensors help detect the COVID 19 virus.

A local Triton founded bio sensor startup is harnessing the power of graphene, an incredibly sensitive biosensing material that we will soon see replace silicon and other elements employed today for the use cases of tomorrow.

Graphene sensors have been shown for several years to be capable of advanced detection and testing in fields such as genomics, small molecule-protein receptor interactions and advanced allergen sensing as well as increasingly virus detection.

New scientific literature shows a robust capability for a graphene-based sensor to detect the COVID 19 virus, by providing sensing information in three ways; through the presence of the virus in the virus protein, through detecting antibodies and through the DNA of the virus itself. As we speak, they hope to find a local partner or investor to help scale this testing platform.

As the former president of Tech Coast Angels, Jeffrey Draa met founder Dr. Aliaksandr Zaretski at an on campus pitch competition at UC San Diego. Helping him refine his pitches, what at the time seemed liked a futuristic technology proved to be a scalable wonder. Funded with the help of the Triton Fund and Tech Coast Angels, the day Alex graduated was the day his journey at Grolltex began.

What has been your experience with UC San Diego in developing a diverse entrepreneurial culture?

With my involvement at the San Diego Tech Coast Angels group, we have always had a close relationship with the UC system, particularly with the Rady M.B.A. program. It’s a nice synergistic relationship. Rady students vet angel investment deals through TCA’s analyst programs and TCA gets the horsepower of really incredible students looking at proposed investment deals.

Grolltex’s founding got very lucky with regard to timing. Prior to Janet Napolitano’s arrival, the UC system was pretty guarded about letting commercial interests be exposed to UC technology. However, during her time at UC that opened up a bit, with her looking around at the incredible power and value of what UC was just sitting on by way of IP and inventions. We think partly because of this, our experience at OIC was very helpful, accommodating and supportive.

What excites you about your work?

Exciting things are happening every day at Grolltex, what we are doing is really important. I’m not sure everyone gets to say that about their job. It’s incredibly powerful. We are, I believe, looking at one of the best examples of humans optimizing what nature has given us to advance the human condition.

We believe we have a big piece of the puzzle to help make graphene manufacturable. We think it is today. It may show up tomorrow at your job. In the fight against COVID-19 for example, we are helping to make sensors and sensor packages for Sanford Burnham and several others. There is no better sensing material than graphene to help sense antibodies. It is the most abundant solid element on the planet and can be put in a form to be many different types of sensors.

“For Grolltex, we are very excited about what we see as the 2D material revolution. While we live in a 3D world, it’s incredible what we can do with carbon in a two-dimensional form.”

Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?

We have been busy with new requests, supplying advanced materials to researchers all over the world. When you are in a startup, you have to wear a lot of hats. I answer the phones, balance the checkback, even clean the office!  Today, we are 3 guys, we get the roles. There is no hierarchy.

How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?

For Grolltex, we are very excited about what we see as the 2D material revolution. While we live in a 3D world, it’s incredible what we can do with carbon in a two dimensional form. We use methane to make what we believe is the most advanced material humans have ever produced. The list is endless what you can use to make with it.  

More and more humans are using what nature has given us, in a manner that does not create waste. We want to take things that were already discovered and make them manufacturable. This is a brave new world now. You can make small machines at the atomic level with our material.

What role have mentors played in your success/journey?

I owe a lot to Rory Moore – in my opinion, no one in San Diego who is alive today has done more for entrepreneurship in this city. He runs a group called EvoNexus, that puts students in an entrepreneurial incubator, helping them form up their start-up ideas, without charging them anything.  He does this by raising donations from local businesses. The whole process is inspiring for future entrepreneurs.

He’s helped me a lot. The team has a very direct and non-coddling style, getting right to the point. It’s tough love and that’s what you often need in the early days of a start-up.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?

Realizing the current path at the time wasn’t going to work and being intellectually nimble enough to wear it and make the needed changes. My advice to entrepreneurs – be humble, which means be flexible. Don’t get stuck in a certain way of thinking.

Figure out what people need and how to get it to them. Keep your powder dry. Be very stingy with cash, always be ready to get more. Change directions when you need to, be nimble.

“Don’t worry about what you don’t know, just go and find what your prospective customers need and figure out how to get it to them.

Have a bias toward action. This is the way to be successful.”

What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?

A lot of entrepreneurs especially in technical fields may feel at times like they have gotten out ahead of their skis, maybe being in over their head. At times they may feel like they are in areas they are not qualified to be in. Don’t worry about what you don’t know, just go and find what your prospective customers need and figure out how to get it to them. Have a bias toward action. This is the way to be successful.

Have the knowledge that no one knows everything or has everything to be successful. Figure out what you lack and go get it. It’s all out there…just go get it and make sure it delivers value to your customer. We’re very lucky to have the resources and help for start-ups here in San Diego that we do have.  Believe me, it isn’t like this everywhere.  Take advantage of the programs that are offered and use all available resources.

To learn more, visit Grolltex or contact Draa on LinkedIn.

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