Biotech at the Under 20 Summit

Yesterday I had the great fortune to attend the Thiel Foundation’s 20 Under 20 Summit, and I left in awe of everyone I met and all of the cool projects the attendees were working on. Certainly, all of the software / web / tech projects that people had going were amazing and had a lot of potential, but what really got me excited was the biotech presence at the Summit.

The first guy I met in the biotech space is Matthew Scholz, who started a company called Immusoft that is trying to program the immune system – literally. Immusoft’s website describes their mission as “to develop a completely new platform for delivering medicines – programming a patient’s own cells to become miniature drug factories.” They will accomplish this by teaching a patient’s cells to constantly secrete gene-encoded medicines (biologics) using modified B cells. How cool is that?! The science behind his company is very interesting, but what I found most compelling about his story is that he started this biotech company with a background in computer science and very little knowledge of biology itself. This seems to go against everything I have learned as a bioengineer up until now.

When you ask most Bioengineering majors or graduates back at UPenn about career options, you surprisingly hear of few people going into the biotech space right off the bat. It seems like the majority of undergraduates head straight for grad school after getting their degree, which is a common complaint with people in the program – it seems like there’s nowhere else to go. I think the rationale goes something like this: if you want to get into biotech, which is a very scientific field, you have to first understand the science and work in a lab where you can find this understanding. Only then, with a graduate degree and years of experience, can you start your own biotech company. Either that, or, sadly, you go into finance or consulting or some other field that has nothing to do with bioengineering.

Matthew, thankfully, came to the Summit and almost completely erased this idea from my head. He had done work in computer security, and one day had the amazing insight that he could apply ideas from computer security to biology. Right when he said that, I became interested – everyone is always saying how the best new ideas come from areas between disciplines. ┬áHe had an idea after reading a popular science article about how scientists were modifying immune system cells to fight off infections in cancer patients. He read up a little more about antibodies and how specific antibodies made by the immune system fight specific diseases, and wondered why you couldn’t program cells to make antibodies for specific infections that are currently beating natural immune systems. He made the analogy between programming B cells and working with a keyspace in computer security. That went right over my head, but some of you might know what he was talking about.

So, he started asking experts in the field about his idea. Many of them said that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be done. But Matthew did the smart thing. He would corner these nay-sayers and ask them why. They would tell him the biggest problem that they saw with his idea, and then he did the next smart thing. He would find an expert that was dealing with that problem and learn as much as he could about their technology. By repeating this process, he did a few things.

First, he applied Lean Startup principles to biotech. By finding problems early and learning how to solve those problems, he was iterating his idea and modifying it each time an obstacle was encountered. Step by step, he built up a product that overcame all of the problems the “experts” had previously pointed out. Second, he was able to learn a crazy amount about biology and the immune system. Each time he would find a problem, he would find an expert and read their papers. Since he read these papers, he consequently had something to discuss with these experts, who were happy to talk with him and help with his idea. This led him to the resources and the technology that he needed to start this company. And even more important, these experts later became his advisors.

The best part about Immusoft is that Matthew didn’t even come up with the technology! I should qualify that statement by pointing out that he had the brilliant idea to take a couple different technologies and bring them together to achieve his goal of programming the immune system. But these original technologies were licensed from different universities, and no one was even using them for commercial purposes. One technology was exculsively licensed from Caltech, and another “novel lentiviral pseudotype” was discovered in Germany and developed in France (see Immusoft’s website for more info). This alone proves that you don’t need to go to grad school and slave away in a lab to create a technology from scratch in order to make your own biotech company.

Another point Matthew brought up that is worth remembering concerns the business side of biotech. He recruited a regulatory team to guide Immusoft’s technology through FDA approval, and they along with some advisors suggested that he tackle rare diseases before moving on to a full blown transformation of everyone’s immune systems. The regulatory path for rare disease treatments is a lot less messy and time consuming, which would allow his company to make tangible progress while working on larger health problems. This underscores the value of having a good team with different perspectives and experiences who can help guide your company down the appropriate path.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Matthew’s story and having the opportunity to talk to him about his company. The Under 20 Summit was a great experience, and along with meeting Matthew, I was truly inspired by all of the people around me who were starting their own exciting ventures (more blog posts on the rest of the Summit to come). Hopefully this story can persuade more bioengineering majors to stay in the field rather than going to finance or consulting. I know that it has definitely opened my eyes to what is possible, and that is an invaluable lesson.

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