Missoula’s Prime Labs helps scientists keep focus on advancement

Editor’s NoteThis is the fourth in a series of business profiles highlighting forward-thinking, Missoula-based start-ups. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance recently feted the firms, all of which meet at least two required criteria: steep revenue growth or work in a high-growth sector; high-potential products or services; valuable intellectual property; major clients or new markets; will expand operations or add a significant number of jobs in the next year; led by experienced entrepreneurs or top experts.

Rob Smith

Prime Labs, headquartered in Missoula, is primed to make data user-friendly and ultra-intuitive for industries that use mass spectrometry.

What is mass spectrometry, you ask? 

“A mass spectrometer is used to ascertain the identity and quantities of molecules in a liquid, gas, or solid sample,” said Rob Smith, CEO/ founder of Missoula-based Prime Labs in 2017 and University of Montana computer science associate professor. “It tells you what’s in something and how much of it is there. Mass spectrometers are used for many, many applications.”

Prime Labs serves primarily the health care and pharmaceutical industries. But what are some practical analytical uses of a physical mass spectrometer?

“They are, for instance, indispensable in the discovery and manufacture of drugs, where knowing what is in a sample and how much of it guides the search for new drugs, the design of industrial process to make them at scale, and the safety testing of them to ensure the mass-produced versions are equivalent to — and therefore as safe — as the trial versions that passed Federal Drug Agency approval.”

To the scientific mind, it may seem as if mass spectrometry is a blurry concept, but not to minds like Smith, who holds a Ph.D and a master’s degree in computer science – with specialties in computational mass spectrometry and data mining combined with artificial intelligence. 

While searching for Ph.D dissertation topic surrounding artificial intelligence and data mining, Smith discovered that mass spectrometry provided “many big data problems with substantial impact in medical diagnostics and treatments, but few solutions.”

He had found his niche – and launched headlong into finding solutions – especially to overcome what he calls “bad software” within the field.

“I have spent years developing technology to radically increase the quality and volume of information we can extract from mass spectrometry experiments, but officially launched Prime Labs in response to learning how much time mass spectrometrists waste with clunky, poorly designed software interfaces.”

Bottom line: He was bent on helping scientists spend less time wrangling unfriendly software and more valuable time running experiments.

“That’s why our motto is ‘Do what you want. Enjoy what you do,’” he said. “No mass spectrometrist trains for decades to spend their time fighting with bad software. We help them solve the problems they are passionate about without all the hassle.”

A physical tool, a mass spectrometer requires data, so Prime Labs works with clients who need help acquiring such data to help streamline their work.

“Our mission is to provide ultra-intuitive, user-friendly, sharable data processing and visualization for all mass spectrometry users,” he said. “Our software advances the state of the art through interface, algorithms, and infrastructure.”

For example, Smith’s company can help drastically reduce the cost and time it takes for the pharmaceutical scientists to create new drugs in a world where “exponentially increasing complexity doubles the cost of drug development every seven years.”

Mass spectrometry, he said, produces rich data sets essential to solving many biochemical problems that require advanced software to convert, for example, molecular data. 

Prime Labs has received several grants, including a Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology grant for $89,000 and a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for $225,000. 

Last summer, the company scored another SBIR grant for $750,000, which Smith said will help the company advertise the product.

The young company also won an on-the-job-training SBIR Phase 1 match, plus a SBIR Phase 2 matching state grants for a total of about $70,000.

Prime Labs was accepted into the invitation-only C2M Beta Accelerator program, which connects start-up leaders. 

Having previously worked as a management developer at various levels, Smith has also taught five years a tenure-track professor. He said he garnered more than $1.5 million in competitive research funding for computational mass spectrometry research.

They types of jobs Prime Labs creates in Missoula include development, with a forward-looking plan to expand into what he calls services and scientific consultancy.

“We currently have eight employees, two more who have accepted positions but haven’t started yet, and two interns starting soon for 12 total,” he said. 

Specific required skill sets for an employee include a “broader and deeper knowledge than anyone seems to have,” he said, such as:

  • Front-end and back-end development
  • Cloud computing
  • User-interface design
  • Algorithmic design
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Chemistry

“We aren’t under the illusion that we will find anyone who already has even most of those skills, so everyone we hire goes through an extensive on-the-job training process.”

But the man who retreats to his own self-described micro-farm homestead complete with fruit and nut orchards and chickens, life balance and strong interactive skills are also priorities at Prime Labs. 

The company busts out of the isolated cubicle mindset of old that stereotyped pioneer computer programmers.

“So while we pay based on skills and production, we hire based on human values that seem to translate very well to a person’s success rate at Prime Labs,” said Smith, 35. “Non-negotiables include open-mindedness, excellence, extreme ownership, mutual generosity, and courage. These are very hard to find, and you’ll note they aren’t technical.”

Drawn to Missoula to teach at UM, Smith said he decided to stay because he had already planted 100 fruit and nut trees on his farm that he wanted to nurture.  He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. As an Army National Guard logistics officer, he oversaw 100 other people. 

In his current incarnation, Smith seems firmly planted in Missoula, where Prime Labs appears to be successful and growing.

“We have had almost universal interest in our product,” Smith said. “Our customers — mass spectrometry scientists — are desperately looking for ways to spend more time on their science and less time trying to make unintuitive flaky legacy software do what they need it to.”

So far, Prime Labs has worked with at least 200 pharmaceutical and non-profit mass spectrometry labs. 

“Some of the business we’ve worked with are in Montana, but the vast majority are not,” he added. 

Currently Prime Labs contracts with several large commercial labs, who are testing the company’s Prometheus software.

“We are scientists helping scientists,” said Smith. “We contact potential partners to better understand the struggles they are facing with current software, ensure we are providing significant throughput and quality improvements, then see if there is more opportunity to work together.”

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at renatab@missoulacurrent.com and 406-565-0103.