BIOS Podcast #4: Accelerating Life Sciences w/ Tony Kulesa — Co-Founder @ Petri

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Tony Kulesa, PhD, is a Co-founder @ Petri, a Boston based accelerator that backs companies developing new biotech applications and technologies in healthcare, food, industrial chemicals, and new materials. Petri draws on the resources of one of the strongest biotech ecosystems in the world to support founders from around the globe. Previously, Tony was the founding Director of the MIT BioMakerspace, a community biology laboratory and incubator space, and an Instructor at the MIT Department of Biological Engineering. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT, where his inventions of new platforms for drug discovery and microbial therapeutics were highlighted in Science Editor’s Choice and Nature Reviews Drug Discovery.

This article is a summary of key takeaways from the BIOS Podcast episode w/ Tony Kulesa— Listen Here!

Accelerating Biology in the 21st Century

Tony started off this episode by revealing:

“I see the purpose of my life as to bring change with biology, essentially to make biology one of the transforming forces of the 21st century.”

Tony’s grandfather was an electrical and controls engineer who worked for NASA, and growing up it was clear to him how our understanding of physics proved to be the catalyst that revolutionized the world in the 20th century. Tony draws parallels between electronics / computers and biology, envisioning the life sciences to have a similar transformational impact on the 21st century. Biological systems, he notes, compose many aspects of our everyday life, and given the advances in sequencing and molecular biology, now is the perfect time to develop and apply our understanding of the biological source code.

Progressing towards this goal of transforming the 21st century through biology, Tony sees his impact maximized as a force multiplier for other individuals. During his Ph.D. at MIT, Tony invented several promising therapeutics for infectious disease and antibiotic discovery. However as an academic, he noticed a clear void and friction preventing him from commercializing his technology.

“I started thinking, “how could I start a company here?” and I realized how little support there was for that process. I ended up finding a lot of like-minded people who were Ph.D.s or postdocs who had their own inventions that they wanted to see impact the world and saw the same kinds of barriers in front of them.”

Tony ended up teaming up with these students and postdocs to establish student groups, teach classes, and eventually launch a lab space to address the friction they were experiencing. It was through this experience that Tony found his spot to leverage his skills and eventually start Petri. The fundamental problem Petri hopes to address is the void of support that comes after an individual commits to starting a company. Tony notes that biotech uniquely relies on a venture creation model where companies are built and funded themselves — investment rarely exists to cultivate early stage entrepreneurs. Petri is co-created with founders and executives of companies across the life sciences who work with founders as collaborators to provide frictionless transition into founding companies. Tony remarks,

“[Entrepreneurs are] learning, but there’s a lot of experience that can be brought in to help these entrepreneurs, and that’s really created a gap where you have people working in the life sciences without this community and support and culture around them. That is what we hope to solve with Petri.”

Platform Technologies and their Role in Building Companies

The contrast between the tech and biotech industries is a common discussion point in the past 20 years, but Tony sees this contrast stemming from terminology that no longer applies. To illustrate this point, Tony brings us back to 1976, when both Apple and Genentech were founded. The founding of Genentech is often regarded as the birth of the biotech industry — yet initially, Genentech’s core innovation centered around manufacturing. Their first product, human growth hormone (hGH), had already been validated medically and clinically. The real innovation was producing and manufacturing hGH using microbes and recombinant DNA.

“[While] many companies today look like therapeutics or biotech companies as conventionally defined, many more will look like “1976 Genentech” where they’re really making a 0 to 1 innovation using a biological technology in a new way, and they’re building a company that’s never been built before.”

The confluence of engineering in biology will open up platform technologies as a driver of future innovation, especially for startups. Tony notes that we’re seeing an unbundling of how biotech functions, where much of the 0-to-1 innovation stems from small and mid-size companies. More than half of biologics are currently sourced externally, which allows large biopharma to play to their strengths: clinical trials, manufacturing, and GTM.

“This [model] will open up a whole new set of opportunities for companies to plug into the drug discovery process, essentially creating whole new industries there.”

Lessons from Running a Biotech Accelerator

Why join an accelerator? Tony likens Petri and other accelerators to elite higher education. He notes that key highlights are the peer community, the “badge of honor”, and gateway to mentors, funding, and top service providers that amplify your work.

On evaluating early stage startup ideas, Tony emphasizes the need to prove superiority of the technical approach fairly quickly. If risk cannot be discharged until a Phase III clinical trial, the venture is far less attractive from an investment perspective. Going back to the Genentech example, the team was able to validate the scalable production of human growth factor and demonstrate superiority over existing approaches early on. Opportunities where technical superiority can be quickly proven are preferred at the early stages. In addition, a magnetic team that can recruit talent, raise funding, defend its technology, and see the full arc of company growth is critical. Tony cautions that a weak team with strong IP can win the race to commercialization due to the importance of IP in biotech.

“Really, the most interesting companies are the ones we’ve never heard of before, and I appreciate that that doesn’t give people much guidance!”

Petri’s philosophy is largely inspired by the academic model of producing great scientists — it’s about apprenticeship and being able to work with people who have been in your shoes, had similar experiences, and succeeded in them.

“Not only is it inspiring, but it’s those people who can give you the advice you need. Petri has tried to import the apprenticeship model into entrepreneurship with people who have built great companies….The thing that has been really surprising and amazing about the whole industry is how flat it is. It’s really been super easy to engage with many of the figures in the industry that you would have thought would be inaccessible. People really want to pay it forward. And as much talk as there is about market competition, people really are motivated by trying to work on real problems, and [there’s] a feeling of real camaraderie.”

For Ph.D.s especially, Tony advises to look outside of one’s own research comfort zone for resources and ideas. Developing a wider perspective of all the interesting ideas that one can add value towards is one of the major challenges, especially because a diversity of experts specialized in different fields will inevitably be required to scale a technology.

For those without domain specific degrees, Tony’s best advice is to volunteer in a biology lab or young startup. As an example, Eric Lander, who held a Ph.D. in mathematics, first taught at Harvard Business School and began volunteering in David Botstein’s lab. Eric eventually learned about genetics and brought a way of thinking from his mathematical point of view to improve strategies for mapping the human genome. The key takeaway is that unless one is working directly on cutting-edge new research and technology, it will be difficult to establish the technical grounds for which new ventures can be built upon. For industry outsiders, getting access to the scientific frontier is priority #1.

Investing and Building in the Life Sciences Revolution

A central paradigm when thinking about innovation in life sciences has been the difference between validating platform approaches (e.g. mRNA vaccines) and validating biology (e.g. does inserting an mRNA strand change pathology). When thinking about any platform technology, Tony sees four major types of risk: technical, biological, clinical, and market risk. The technical risk is whether the platform that you created is able to generate an asset that addresses a problem. The biology and clinical risk is how the biological hypothesis is connected to the disease — in other words, whether the drug solves or rescues the pathology of the disease. Finally, the market risk is whether the working product can sell.

“In therapeutics, you move through these in a pretty clear stepwise fashion to hit value inflections. What you don’t want to do is get to the later stages and still face market or clinical risk. So the strategy is to minimize the clinical and market risk early on and focus 100% on technical risk. Once your platform is validated through Phase II efficacy, you can start to open up to new opportunities in different markets.”

For platform technologies, this is why there has been a focus on addressing monogenic conditions where patients are easily recruited and there is a clear biomarker of disease to track and measure. In these cases, the clinical risks of recruiting patients, appropriately targeting disease pathology, and eventually marketing to a specific patient population can be discharged. Afterwards, selling into a well-defined market enables moving on to larger market opportunities using the previously validated platform approach. The important point is indication selection: selecting a market that either is easy to sell into (e.g. rare diseases) or has a large market size (e.g oncology).

On the coming life sciences revolution,

“The amazing thing about biology is that biological systems span more than ten orders of magnitude in scale: everything from the atomic level all the way to whole ecosystems. We have been limited by ability to interface with biological systems, and by that I mean to control and to measure them. The real revolution that we’ve seen is being able to build interfaces step by step for each layer of the system.”

For centuries, our ability as humans to control and engineer biology was restricted to breeding. Now, Tony notes how with molecular biology, the genetic code has been unraveled with the ability to read and write DNA, RNA, and proteins. Whole genomes can be engineered at the base pair level. Similarly, cells can now be engineered by controlling cell state in space and time with -omics technologies. The burgeoning field of synthetic biology has provided the ability to read and write single cell organisms and microbes, and with bio-printing, whole organs can be mapped in situ.

“In a very short amount of time, we’ve been able to build interfaces at each layer of these biological systems, which is only going to unlock our ability to control. We’ve really gained access to the source code of the universe. If you think of the 20th century as getting access to the source code of physics, the 21st century is getting access to the source code of biological systems.”

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