Founder Spotlight #26: Cheri Ackerman @ Concerto Biosciences
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Cheri Ackerman is a Co-Founder & CEO @ Concerto Biosciences, an MIT/Harvard spinout that develops microbial “ensembles” as revolutionary new disease treatments. To discover ensembles, Concerto uses a novel screening platform called kChip, which Ackerman worked on as an NIH Kirschstein Postdoctoral Fellow with Prof. Paul Blainey at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Prior to this, Ackerman earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry as a Hertz Fellow at UC Berkeley. She holds a B.S. in Biochemistry and Spanish from Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI). Ackerman is passionate about solving high-impact problems in a way that promotes health and wholeness for everyone impacted by the solution.
Concerto Biosciences reinvents humanity’s relationship with microbes. We envision a future where each of us nurtures the microbial communities in us, on us, and around us to stay healthy. To pave the way to this future, we invented a platform to measure the millions of interactions occurring among microbes. These measurements enable Concerto to see the world as it is: a massive underlying network of microbial interactions that shapes the health of our bodies and our planet. The network reveals new products — “ensembles” of microbes that work in concert to perform tasks that benefit people. Our first ensembles rehabilitate the skin microbiome, providing protection from previously intractable diseases like eczema and restoring health to millions.
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?
My love of the life sciences started in 10th grade biology, when I learned that DNA becomes RNA becomes protein. The processes of transcription and translation are so elegant and enable an organism to beautifully balance its need for immediate biochemical action with its need for stable information storage and transfer. The concept of a codon was absolutely captivating. I couldn’t get enough. While I was learning about that, a variety of natural disasters were happening across the world: Hurricane Katrina and a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, among others. I wanted desperately to be old enough and well-trained enough to help provide medical relief, so I entered college pre-med. At the encouragement of my freshman biology professor, I decided to do research in a biology lab the summer after my freshman year, and I had a blast. It was mind-boggling to me that someone would pay me to solve biology puzzles as a job. After wrestling with whether I could make a difference in medicine through research, I decided to go to graduate school, not medical school. Since then, I’ve tried to shape my research and career to benefit human health as much as possible.
I work in the microbiome because I strongly believe that the future of medicine is about creating health through balanced ecosystems, rather than treating disease by killing “bad cells” with toxins. We see the importance of cellular ecology shaping research in everything from cancer and autoimmune disease to pest control in agriculture. The microbiome is well-positioned to become one of the first physical manifestations of “health through ecological balance,” and I want to be one of the people that brings this into reality.
How did you get your training, if any to be able to build your company? Life Sciences increasingly has interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, while other founders take the plunge and jump straight off the deep end. Which one are you & why?
I jumped into company building straight out of my postdoc, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that I came in totally untrained. To the extent that my job is just another leadership job, I had training through a variety of volunteer roles I had held during graduate school, including leading our department to develop resources to support graduate students encountering conflict with their advisors, as well as serving as a deacon at my church in Berkeley. Additionally, Concerto’s cofounders spent 18 months building the company as a side-gig while working our full-time academic jobs. I learned a ton by participating in the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Harvard/MIT: MIT’s Biomed Startup, Harvard Biotech Club’s Nucleate Program, and the Harvard I-Lab, among others. Of course none of that can substitute for actually leading a company, but I definitely came in with a well-developed vocabulary and conceptual understanding of organizational development and change, as well as entrepreneurship basics like competitive landscape, intellectual property, and value proposition.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background & career thus far? What were you doing before you started running a high potential venture backed startup?
Undergrad: Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI), double major in biochemistry and Spanish
Grad school: UC Berkeley, Chemical Biology, Advisor: Chris Chang, topic: Detecting, measuring, and manipulating copper in biological systems
Postdoc: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Biological Engineering, Advisor: Paul Blainey
Immediately before starting Concerto, I was working on CARMEN, a massively multiplexed viral diagnostics technology, which was also based on kChip. We published the work in April 2020, and I continue to collaborate with the Broad Institute to adapt the technology for applications to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
What problem is your company solving? How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?
We’ve all heard about the promise of the microbiome to cure disease, create green farming, and revolutionize consumer goods, but microbial products that perform as advertised are hard to find. They’re hard to find at the store or in a doctor’s office because they’re hard to identify in the lab: It has been too expensive and time-consuming to measure all the permutations of the microbiome that could promote health, so scientists have been stuck trying to infer health-promoting microbes by comparing healthy and sick people. Not only is this strategy expensive, but it also hasn’t been going very well, burdening the microbiome industry with clinical failures and skeptics.
We built Concerto Biosciences to provide the type of data that the microbiome industry needs to succeed: direct measurement of millions of permutations of microbial communities. By directly measuring how changes in microbial community composition alter community behavior, we identify microbial ensembles: groups of microbes that work together to perform desirable functions.
We want to see microbial products reach their full potential because microbial products can provide humanity with unprecedented access to health across industries. Microbial products are a gateway to a new practice of medicine–one in which we build health through beneficial ecological interactions instead of treating disease after imbalance has arisen. Microbial products can eliminate the routine use of antibiotics and pesticides in farming, decreasing resistance and ecological damage. And microbial products can create healthier, more durable homes by eliminating toxic cleaners and protecting against mold and rot.
But none of this is possible until we actually learn what drives microbial community behavior. Let’s find microbial products that work!
Quite simply, what does your company do?
Concerto Biosciences provides humanity with the ability to shape the behavior of microbial communities. Our products are microbial ensembles: defined groups of microbes that work in concert to perform desirable functions. Our first ensembles rebuild the skin microbiome, addressing previously intractable diseases like eczema and allowing millions to live free from itchy, inflamed skin.
Now in technical language, what are the specifics of what your company does?
Concerto Biosciences uses a platform called kChip to directly measure microbial interaction networks for the first time and find microbial ensembles–defined groups of microbes that perform desirable functions. After identifying a key microbiome behavior that is critical for health, we use kChip, a nanodroplet-microwell array, to rapidly measure how millions of microbial interactions influence that behavior. kChip data fuel an ever-growing network model of how microbial interactions lead to microbial community behavior. Additionally, kChip directly reveals microbial ensembles that perform the behavior of interest. We develop microbial ensembles into products that improve health for patients, consumers, and farmers. We also partner with companies looking for effective microbial ingredients to solve their customers’ or patients’ needs.
Any talk of a platform needs to be substantiated with a high-value application. The first ensemble we’ve identified is a group of microbes we call ENSEMBLE NO.2, which addresses atopic dermatitis (AD), also called eczema. AD causes debilitating skin itching and rashes in 200M people globally. AD has no cure, and existing treatments (e.g. topical steroids, injectable immune modulators) have toxic side effects that limit their duration of use. Patients get stuck in cycles of having a flare, applying a drug to calm their skin, discontinuing the drug due to side effects, and then waiting anxiously for their skin to flare again. An ensemble of microbes is totally safe, so patients don’t need to discontinue use. A patient could use a microbial ensemble in their daily skincare routine and never have a flare again, which is an incredible value proposition for AD patients.
Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?
By giving humanity control over the behavior of microbial communities, Concerto Biosciences is enabling an entirely new class of products that will make health accessible to everyone. Babies will grow up with protective microbiomes that give them healthy immune systems from the start. Microbial ensembles in the soil will provide nutrients to crops when and where those nutrients are needed, while microbial ensembles on leaves and fruit will protect them from pests. Basements, showers, and organic raspberries will be permanently mold-free.
What is your company’s founding story? How did everything come together?How did you meet your co-founder? Was there a specific moment when you knew you should pursue this as a business idea? If so, what was it? Timing is everything — how did you know the timing was right?
Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Jared Kehe, invented kChip as a graduate student in Paul Blainey’s lab at MIT. When I joined Paul’s lab as a postdoc, I was totally smitten by kChip’s capabilities: Suddenly I could take a collection of experimental conditions and try every permutation of those conditions without suffering through pipetting (literally) a hundred thousand things. Jared and I worked together on “Team Droplets,” the name of the subgroup within the Blainey lab that works on kChip, and developed a deep respect for each others’ rigor, creativity, and candor. All the while, Jared was spending the occasional Friday evening at Meadhall nerding out about microbial ecology with Bernardo Cervantes, a microbiology grad student in our next-door-neighbor lab (Bernardo worked with Jim Collins and Kristala Prather), but I didn’t know this until later.
In the winter of 2018–2019, Jared and I started brainstorming about what it would look like to commercialize kChip, and we signed up for a couple of MIT and Harvard entrepreneurship bootcamps. Through the Harvard Biotech Club’s Nucleate Program, we met Adil Bahalim, a Harvard Doctor of Public Health student with a keen eye for product-market fit. The three of us spent the spring exploring various commercial applications for kChip, and it was clear by the end of the program that we could use kChip to build products that people would buy. For kChip to operate efficiently, we needed a microbiologist who could build microbial biobanks from human samples and develop fluorescent assays to use in kChip. Bernardo was a perfect fit. By May 2019, we had our cofounding team: myself, Jared, Bernardo, and Adil. But all three of them were still a full year away from graduation from their programs, and I wanted to get my postdoc paper out.
We spent the 2019–2020 academic year applying to every source of nondilutive funding we could find, and at the end of March 2020, 3 weeks after the pandemic had shut down Massachusetts, we got our first win: Jared and I became fellows in the Activate Global program, providing us with 2 years of stipends, $100k for technology development, and incredible company-building guidance. If I had to name a moment when I suddenly knew that we were actually going to start the company, that was it. Our fellowships were scheduled to start June 1, so we told Paul that we’d be leaving at the end of May (and he was very supportive!). Additional prizes followed that spring, including the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge Runner-up Award, the Hertz Foundation Newman Award, an award from the Allston Fund, and access to the Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab. As each of us wrapped our academic activities in the spring and summer of 2020, we went full-time at Concerto. By September, we were running full speed, and we closed a pre-seed round in October, allowing us to hire employees and move even faster.
What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?
In addition to the awards and funding listed above, we’ve reached some incredible technical and team milestones.
On the technical side: We started the company with an academic technology that had only been validated in a plant microbiome model system (you can check it out in Kehe & Kulesa, et al PNAS 2019 if you’re curious). Over the last year, we’ve demonstrated that kChip is a discovery platform that can identify commercially valuable microbial ensembles. Specifically, we’ve found ENSEMBLE NO.2, an ensemble that controls S. aureus virulence, a main driver of atopic dermatitis (AD). We’ve shown that the microbes in this ensemble grow well in manufacturing-appropriate media, and we’re running at top speed toward an IND and in-human trials.
In terms of our team, we’ve recruited some awesome dermatology advisors, including Dr. Peter Lio, the founder and leader of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Center and firm believer in the importance of shepherding the microbiome to health, as well as Dr. Tiffany Scharschmidt, Associate Professor in Dermatology and an expert in skin immunology and microbiome. We also recently recruited Henry Rath as a business advisor; he was Seres Therapeutics’ SVP of Corporate Development and brings deep experience navigating commercialization of microbiome products. Finally, we’ve hired two amazing employees — a research scientist and a data scientist — who broaden our company’s skillset and accelerate our science.
What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflection?
We’ve had a big technical win in identifying a microbial ensemble that performs exactly the way we intended it to (controlling S. aureus virulence). But you can’t claim platform status on a single asset. To demonstrate the value of the platform, we’re capitalizing on our in-house skin microbiome biobank and existing datasets to identify additional ensembles that benefit the skin, with applications like seborrheic dermatitis and acne. We’re also working to expand into the vaginal microbiome to address recurrent yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, and other womens’ health conditions. These activities create value directly through the discovery of new assets and also diversify our risk by giving us multiple shots at product success.
In parallel to platform expansion, we’ll take ENSEMBLE NO.2 into the clinic. We want to show that ENSEMBLE NO.2 controls S. aureus virulence on the skin of a person with atopic dermatitis, validating that kChip finds ensembles that robustly perform their intended function in people. We expect that patients treated with ENSEMBLE NO.2 will recover faster from AD flares and stay flare-free longer, setting up ENSEMBLE NO.2 for success as a therapeutic asset. A positive first-in-human readout of ENSEMBLE NO.2 safety and efficacy will be a major value inflection point for Concerto.
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?
The opportunity to start a company is a gift. Yes, you’re pushing yourself to your limits to build momentum and resources for your company. And still: the opportunity is a gift. Consider all of the ways that it didn’t have to turn out this way, and yet it did. Think of all the people who have rallied behind you to help you make your vision a reality. Think of all the circumstances that were far outside your control that aligned to give you the chance to launch your startup in the first place (or even to consider launching a startup!). None of this diminishes your own sweat and tears, but don’t center yourself too much. Receiving each day of leadership as a gift and holding the future with open hands creates a posture of humility and creativity that I believe is highly valuable as an entrepreneur. From this posture, you have so many reasons to laugh, to encourage the people around you, and to dream about the future.
What are some of the must haves for an early stage Life Sciences startup in your eyes?
Articulating your vision is critical. You’ll use it to build momentum with investors, advisors, and employees. Once you set a clear picture of the world you’re trying to build, it’s just a matter of solving the puzzle of how to get there. And if you can get other people to see that vision, they’ll think creatively alongside you and help you identify the strategy and resources you need to succeed. Pretty much everyone wants the world to be a more beautiful, healthier, kinder place, and if you share your vision of that future world, you can build a lot of support.
Another thing is trust. You’re doing something that is so, so, so, so hard. Along the way you’ll make some major mistakes. Your cofounders, your employees, your advisors, your investors — everyone will make mistakes. Figuring out how to build trust in each other so that those mistakes turn into learning and not division in the company is absolutely critical.
Other things include sector-specific, seasoned advisors (try to only make new mistakes), excellence in scientific execution (run a scientific process where every experiment builds value), and enough money to operate at meaningful speed (don’t undercapitalize).
What are some of the traits that make a great founder? What type of risk profile/archetype does someone need to have to be a founder in your opinion?
For first-time founders, I think the most important trait is to be an incredibly fast learner. You have to be humble, courageous, and resilient to shoulder the density of mistakes and “dumb questions” required to learn your job faster than you’re doing your job. For more seasoned founders, I’m not sure. I’ll let you know when I get there!
For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?
First focus on your value proposition: Most companies die because they’re building something that no one is willing to pay for. Then balance that with remembering that the demand for most of the tech unicorn products (Facebook, most Apple products, etc) wasn’t discovered by asking people what they wanted. I don’t know what the “optimal” solution is to unify these two realities, but I think it’s really important to hold both of them in your mind at the same time. Sometimes the right thing to build is something that customers can already tell you that they want. Sometimes the right thing to build is something that no one will know that they want until they can hold it in their hands. I think a significant piece of startup magic is figuring out how to balance these things for your own technology.
Not everyone knows everything. Often founders have to learn either the science or the business side better. What advice would you give for someone picking up a new skill set such as this?
Read as much as you can; talk to as many experts as you can. Make friends with entrepreneurs who are ~2 years ahead of you (as well as more experienced entrepreneurs). Don’t be afraid to hire in expertise.
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?
To raise our first round, we spoke with over 70 investors in the span of ~8 weeks (July and August 2020). A lot of those connections came through various demo days that we participated in, as well as friends-of-friends/network connections.
Each initial meeting was ~30 minutes. For each meeting, we spent about as much time prepping for the meeting (gathering background on the firm, recent investments, and the specific person we’d be talking to) as we did in the meeting itself. We would use the first ~5 minutes to ask for an overview of the fund (typical check size, what stages the fund invests in, what their investment thesis is in our space), and we would always ask for a few minutes at the end to ask some follow-up questions. We pitched from a deck (I’m not sure if I would recommend this though; I think you can get a long way just talking) in a very fluid format, checking for understanding and buy-in every couple of slides. With ~5 minutes remaining, we’d stop to ask a couple more pointed questions about how the firm supports platform companies and how they relate to founders. Our goal was to create a relatively even information exchange: We need to vet them as much as they are vetting us.
In maybe ~40% of cases, we would get a longer second call to dive into the details of the technology and business. We went into diligence (written Q&A, meeting the partners, etc) with ~10–15 firms.
We had set a goal to have term sheets by the end of the summer, and we told each investor that. This gives you the opportunity to see who is respecting your time and who is dragging you along. Once the first term sheet came in, the dominoes started falling into place, and we closed mid-fall.
A few recommendations: (1) Do diligence on your investors. Talk to other founders who have worked with them. You’re not just looking for red flags; you’re trying to learn about communication preferences, what makes this investor tick, what resources you can reasonably get from this investor, etc. (2) Keep doors open as long as possible. If you’re in diligence with multiple potential leads and one of them gives you a term sheet, use the FOMO to get as many term sheets as you can while letting the first investor know that you’re considering their offer. You don’t need to accept that first offer, and you definitely don’t need to accept it right away. You need to do what is best for your company, which means building as much value as possible by increasing optionality as much as possible, and investors usually respect this. (3) Have a good lawyer working with you. Once we had selected a lead, there was still a lot of “herding cats” to get all the money wired and the paperwork signed. Our legal counsel did a great job helping us set deadlines, hold the investors to the deadlines, and centralize the paperwork.
What advice for managing & hiring a great team can you share?
Give people as much space as possible to provide you with feedback. My strategy is to connect with every employee every other week for a check-in. The only thing I won’t talk about in that time is the employee’s past or present work: the conversation is explicitly not about the employee’s performance. Sometimes we just chat about the weekend and get to know each other. Sometimes the employee will ask me questions about my job or the future of the company. Sometimes I ask questions about how they are doing — are they happy? Feeling supported? I also ask direct feedback questions like “if you were Concerto’s CEO, what would you change about Concerto?” In addition to relationship building, my goal for these meetings is “no surprises”: I never want to be surprised by bad news at Concerto. I want employees to have a regular window to tell me how they are doing at the company and how they think the company is doing. If something isn’t working, I want to know about it.
Anything else you would like to add?
My new favorite entrepreneurship quote comes from Naomi Novik’s novel “Spinning Silver.” The quote describes how high magic works in the universe of that novel, and I think it beautifully describes how startup magic works too: “He [was] waiting for high magic: magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.”
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