Meet the Faculty: Bin Ma

Our “Meet the Faculty” interviews provide a window into the work lives of faculty across the University of Waterloo. Faculty members talk about the day-to-day joys and struggles, and share tips for getting the work done and staying mentally and physically healthy in academia.

Bin Ma is a professor in the Cheriton School of Computer Science and co-founder of Rapid Novor Inc.

What do you teach and research?

I teach and research in bioinformatics. In particular, I developed a new technology to read out the sequence information of protein molecules. This is an analog to the better-known DNA sequencing, except that we deal with protein molecules, which requires a totally new method.

What is it about your work that you’re really excited about?

I am most excited about the fact that my work can help patients and improve human health.

Tell us about your start-up.

I cofounded Rapid Novor Inc. in 2015 to commercialize new protein sequencing technology. We started a residency at the Accelerator Centre in 2016 and started offering antibody protein sequencing service to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Recently, the company moved to a purpose-built facility at Catalyst137 in Kitchener. We employ 25 full-time employees—computer scientists, lab scientists, and a business team—and have served more than 200 customers worldwide, including nine out of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies. The company has also developed a clinical assay to detect the relapse of Myeloma, a special type of blood cancer.

It is very important to have full-time business partners. This allows me to participate in the company only on a part-time basis.

How do you balance that work with your role at Waterloo?

It is very important to have full-time co-founders and dedicated business partners. The other two co-founders, Mingjie Xie and Qixin Liu, work full-time for the company as the CEO and CTO, respectively. This allows me to participate in the company only on a part-time basis.

How does your work at Novor interact with your research and graduate student projects?

My research requires access to instruments called mass spectrometers. A state-of-the-art mass spectrometer costs over a million dollars, and government grants funding mass spectrometer labs are rare and hard to get. The company currently owns four proteomics-grade mass spectrometers, and my involvement in the company has helped my research group at the university to access these instruments.

Moreover, interaction with industry has given me a more complete understanding about what’s going on with proteomics in both the public and private sectors. This has allowed me to better predict emerging technologies and select more impactful research projects for my students.

On the other hand, I have found that research and development activities in a company and in a university are very different. Companies’ R&D is usually product-driven and universities’ R&D is usually publication-driven. Thus, all the research projects my students are working on are independent to the company and are solely for their thesis purposes.

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

Work-life balance.

When was the last time you were really surprised about something at work?

My research had not involved interaction with patients until the recent work in cancer diagnosis. Last year, I went to a hematology conference to demonstrate the cancer diagnosis assay we have been developing. Patients were so thankful when they talked to me. I found that moment very touching and it made me feel really good about what I have worked hard on—even at the price of losing work-life balance.

What does a good day at work look like? When and where do you do your best work?

A good day is a day when my students show me good new data. I do my best work when I walk alone.

How do you stay healthy?

I walk a lot while I do my thinking. This is perhaps my only physical exercise. Since I am not very physically active, I watch my diet carefully. I’ve found that spending time with family is important to my mental health.

Are there any productivity tools or practices you find essential?

I write down my to-do list and check it often.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your academic career?

I have been lucky to have had many great advisors and mentors over the many years of my academic career. There is not much that I needed to know but they haven’t taught me. One thing that I wish I have done better in the early years is spending more effort to gather information and predict what technology would become available in the next five years and choose research topics based on the emerging technology.

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