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Founder Spotlight #12: Jake Becraft @ Strand Therapeutics

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Jake Becraft is a synthetic biologist & entrepreneur. He is Co-Founder & CEO @ Strand Therapeutics, as well as serves on its Board of Directors. Together with colleagues at MIT’s renowned Synthetic Biology Center, he led the development of the world’s first synthetic biology programming language for mRNA. Beyond his work at Strand, Jake’s broader interests span synthetic biology, biologically engineered organism-machine interfaces, and the intersection of tech and biotech methodologies. He is an advocate among the life science entrepreneurial ecosystem for supporting young founders in biotech entrepreneurship.

Strand Therapeutics, based in Cambridge, MA, is an emerging biopharmaceutical company poised at the forefront of mRNA therapeutics and synthetic biology. The company has created the first platform for programmable, long-acting mRNA therapeutics for cancer and other diseases that are poorly addressed by traditional approaches. Bio-engineered for high efficacy and low toxicity, Strand’s next-generation mRNA therapies deliver multi-functional treatments with a single shot. The company’s initial focus is the development of mRNA therapies that act through multiple mechanisms to deliver potentially curative treatments for solid tumors. Strand is also developing programmable mRNA for the generation of CAR-T treatments capable of greatly expanding patient access to CAR-T technology by enabling T-cell therapy in a cost-effective, re-doseable, off-the-shelf form. Strand Therapeutics was founded in 2017 by world leading mRNA researchers from the MIT Synthetic Biology Center, creators of the field of mRNA-based synthetic biology.

Personal Spark

What prompted you to pursue a career in Life Sciences? Was there a specific moment in time or influence you can remember? What drives you to work in this space?

I knew I wanted to be in life sciences since I was young. A lot of close family members struggled with healthcare access. I was also growing up at a time when it felt like healthcare was at the precipice of something big. The genome had just been sequenced and we were starting to understand a lot more about biology. At the same time, people were struggling to get access to healthcare. Simple things like insulin, which has been around for a hundred years, were not accessible. And cutting edge medicines at the time, like CAR-T therapies, were wildly expensive despite being under development for over a decade. I was frustrated with the fact that we had a broken healthcare system and were just laying more complex technologies on top of it. I wanted to figure out how we can advance science without pricing out a piece of our country and world, and I saw two main issues that needed to be addressed: 1) Systemic fixes to the healthcare system and 2) Creating next generation therapies that are focused on how we decrease cost & increase the speed of development. I decided to dig in on the latter, and focused on how to make gene transfer more efficient, which is how I found mRNA technologies, and my scientific team at MIT that eventually became the Strand founders.

How did you get your training if any to be able to build your company? LS increasingly has interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, while other founders take the plunge and jump straight off the deep end. Which one are you & why?

I studied mRNA technology in grad school from the get-go at MIT. I settled on mRNA pretty early on and saw it as the platform that can allow us to transfer any gene to any cell directly, if it worked, which wasn’t a guaranteed success back in 2013. A lot of the biotech establishment was looking at this field like a bunch of pie-in-the-sky optimists. However, there are quite a few limitations to mRNA, namely specificity & duration of gene expression once delivered, so I spent my time in graduate school building tools to address those limitations. Everything we built in the lab was designed such that it could be translated into an mRNA therapeutic, but we weren’t building therapeutics in and of themselves. We knew we wanted to see our technologies being used to bring mRNA therapeutics to as many patients as possible as fast as possible.

Company Overview

What problem is your company solving and how did you become motivated to solve it?

mRNA is a wildly promising molecule for therapeutic gene transfer. The idea of using an mRNA therapeutic to program the body to react a certain way is revolutionary, but there are fundamental limitations in expression, specificity, and durability. We see mRNA vaccines now; the next jump in tech will be using mRNA as a therapeutic modality across the biotech ecosystem. That leap will require a number of technological advancements, which is what we started at MIT and are now building at Strand.

Quite simply, what does your company do?

Strand is fixing the fundamental barriers to the adaptation and utilization of mRNA therapies beyond vaccines and across the entire biotech landscape.

Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?

If we can address these fundamental limitations of mRNA, we can create any number of therapies across indications at a low cost. Additionally, mRNA therapies would be accessible and easy to administer, which bridges the gap we are seeing with cell based therapies. mRNA technology will allow therapeutics to be scalable and broad reaching, enabling us to attack all sorts of diseases.

Genesis

What is your company’s founding story? How did everything come together and how did you meet your co-founder?

I came to MIT wanting to fix the fundamental limitations I saw with therapeutic gene transfer therapies, and thought the best was to do that was with synthetic biology. A few days into grad school, I was talking to Ron Weiss about what we saw as the future of science with gene transfer and he introduced me to one of his postdocs, Tasuku, who was working on applying synthetic biology to mRNA. We worked together on these technologies for three years, after which Tasuku went to work at a hedge fund. In 2017, we started talking about the dream of the technology we were developing in the lab. With Tasuku’s insights from industry, we realized our tech had real potential to fix many of the problems other biotechs are facing with gene transfer and delivery. We ultimately wanted to see this tech get commercialized to really help patients and started with pitch competitions and later accelerators, which brought us a lot of traction. We cofounded Strand Therapeutics in 2018 together and launched the company officially at the beginning of 2019.

Accomplishments

What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?

In terms of accomplishments, there are many big moments that felt like real validation for the work we are doing such as winning the BMS Golden Ticket before we started raising funding. The partnership deal we just announced with BeiGene also represents an important inflection point in our development. However, some of my favorite moments that I will never forget are things like the day I walked into our lab and saw our first hire taking a meeting. Or the day we had our first team meeting as a group of six full-time employees. It was the first time I realized we had formed a real team with incredible scientists working on Strand outside of just Tasuku and myself, and I will never forget the feeling of seeing it all start coming together.

What are the biggest hurdles ahead?

Our whole goal with Strand is to move as quickly as possible and bring value to patients. With that in mind, we need to demonstrate the robustness of our platform to show it works in patients. Getting to patients from the bench is a long and arduous journey, but the more people we get behind us, the more people we have helping us move forward.

Pay It Forward

Throughout the journey, what have been some of your biggest takeaways thus far? What advice/words of wisdom would you share from your story for other founders?

Don’t start a company you are not absolutely passionate about. Don’t do it just because it is a good idea or the tech seems interesting. The mission really has to be the driving factor because 99% of the year is going to be filled with tough situations. There is a lot of rejection along the way and you have to be ok with that. For younger people especially starting in biotech is difficult as the ecosystem is only starting to become more accepting of younger technical founders.

Another piece of advice, and this is cliché but I repeat it because I wish I had fully understood why people say it so often, is you have to be careful on who you let into the company. This includes hires and investors. Investor relationships are truly like a marriage. Fundraising can be tough, but you need to make sure you’re not just taking the first money that you can get and have true partners who will support you in more ways than just economic for the long haul

Finally, the number of people willing to advise is crazy. Get as many opinions as you possibly can and then sort through what you’ve been told. Develop relationships and build a strong team of advisors that can help guide you.

Can you demystify the process of what it was like to raise VC funding? What were the highlights & low lights? Any advice or words of wisdom for future founders?

Investors have become comfortable (the right investors) with investing outside of their own cities and across the country. So all pools of capital are open to you when it comes to VC. You don’t have to move your company if you don’t want to; build it where you think will be most efficient. The key with VCs is to spend a lot of time thinking about your story. Humans as a whole are very story oriented. Spend a lot of time bridging your deck between telling your story and showing why you are the right people and technology for this problem. Team, story, technology, in that order. And then talk to as many people as you can. Start with a fixed group of people, get feedback, and then go talk to the next group of people. Raising your first round will be hard and may take a while, but just keep doing it until it works. Make sure you have a good group of trusted advisors. Prioritize forming those relationships and it will really pay off.

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❤️ Thanks Amee Kapadia for your help in putting this together :)

Alix Ventures, by way of BIOS Community, is providing this content for general information purposes only. Reference to any specific product or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, or its affiliates. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. Views and opinions expressed by Alix Ventures employees are those of the employees and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, affiliates, and content sponsors.

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