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Founder Spotlight #38: Cody Shirriff @ Serenity Bioworks

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Cody Shirriff is a scientist entrepreneur who founded Serenity Bio in 2017. He earned a Master’s degree in Biology from the University of Waterloo, and has several peer-reviewed publications on the therapeutic utility of heat shock proteins. As Serenity Bio’s chief executive officer, he has successfully raised venture financing, transacted and collaborated with pharmaceutical companies, and guided the early-stages for Serenity Bio. His current role as CEO is to help build Serenity’s team, assess new opportunities, and ensure Serenity’s milestones are accomplished.

Serenity Bioworks is developing therapeutics that target macrophages for inflammation and autoimmunity. They have two programs: clinical-ready SER-101 for lupus nephritis, and a preclinical program, SER-400, targeting alpha-7 nicotinic receptors for inflammation and pain. Serenity’s platform has also identified other targets on myeloid cells that hold promise for other severe autoimmune disorders.

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?

It was my time spent in iGEM, which is a global synthetic biology competition held every year in Boston. It sparked the idea that biology can be applied to solve problems using math and engineering principles. I recall sitting in my small apartment, just having learned about CRISPR, and thinking of all the possibilities of a cheap and easy gene editing tool. I came up with an idea that helped our team win gold and best model in 2014. We did well in a competition that included institutions like Harvard and MIT, and it showed me it’s possible to out-compete better funded teams with better intellectual capital.

What drives me? Finding things out. The pleasure for me is to discover something new and find a way for people to benefit from the discovery.

How did you get your training, if any, to be able to build your company? Many individuals come from a deep scientific or technical background, while others do not. Which one are you and how has your background prepared you?

Mostly baptism by fire. Graduate school taught me how to deal with failure that happens in research. It didn’t teach me how to de-risk a biotech company or how to value therapeutics or how to manage people who aren’t scientists. I needed mentors, consultants, advisors — any one who has spent a career in pharmaceuticals.

What I ultimately needed were individuals who could provide good, honest feedback. This feedback was often negative in the early days. However, entrepreneurship is an iterative process: assumptions are tested, ideas are improved, and your direction becomes refined over time.

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?

Before SerenityBio, I was doing research on heat shock proteins as a master’s student. I spent a lot of time looking at why and how cells express heat shock proteins (HSPs), and how HSPs can protect cells from harsh conditions. I was aware of companies trying to exploit heat shock proteins as therapeutics for diseases, and I thought I could also contribute to this effort.

Company Overview

What problem is your company solving?

Lupus nephritis patients need to have their kidneys protected. This serious disorder can result in them losing their kidneys. Currently, therapies are throwing everything modern medicine has to offer, and still, most patients don’t fully respond to treatment. We believe we can explore new therapeutics for these patients by looking at the macrophage cell as a target for therapy.

How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?

I realized that we could offer something that no one has put forward for lupus nephritis, and we had the right team of scientists to build it.

Quite simply, what does your company do?

Simply: Serenity Bioworks is a team of scientists developing drugs for severe autoimmune disorders.

Now in more depth, what are the specifics of what your company does?

Serenity Bioworks is developing therapeutics that target macrophages for inflammation and autoimmunity. We have two programs: clinical-ready SER-101 for lupus nephritis, and a pre-clinical program, SER-400, targeting alpha-7 nicotinic receptors for inflammation and pain. Our company’s platform has also identified other targets on myeloid cells that we believe hold promise for other severe autoimmune disorders.

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

It matters for patients who are currently unwell. A particular example: a woman with lupus nephritis may not be able to have children if her lupus isn’t stable. With the right treatment, she may be able to start a family without jeopardizing her health.

Genesis

What is your company’s founding story?

At the end of my MSc, I accepted a PhD offer from a professor at the University of Toronto for a project in synbio, but then declined it once I secured early funding for Serenity. I thought I could make a larger impact with this startup compared to doing research for another person. In a way, this whole journey has been a PhD on steroids.

I met my co-founder while I was doing my MSc on heat shock proteins. We chatted often about the opportunities of starting a biotech startup. I knew he was the right person for the job given his passion, personality, and skills. He was a brilliant and confident scientist who complimented my strengths.

Was there a specific moment when you knew you should pursue this as a business idea? If so, what was it?

I had always felt a gentle pull towards starting this business, like coming across a new publication that supports our ideas or meeting someone who encouraged us to pursue the business. I can’t recall a single eureka moment per se.

Timing is everything — how did you know the timing was right?

For us, it was only in retrospect and with a whole lot of luck. I was lucky in starting a biotech company at a time when biotech incubators, accelerators, and seed-stage capital were plentiful. We also got lucky after closing our seed round. There was an academic-led company struggling to raise money despite showing efficacy in their phase I/IIa trial, and we were experts on the drug they were using. SerenityBio recently completed the acquisition of that drug. But it was all lucky timing.

We took big swings. We were not overly concerned with engineering the perfect solution at the perfect time. We jumped at the opportunity as we saw it, actively sought feedback along the way, and made pivots as appropriate.

Accomplishments

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

  • We raised our seed round from top-tier VCs who believed in us.
  • We then acquired a clinical-stage asset and successfully built out our pipeline.
  • We demonstrated efficacy in our lead program in two lupus mouse models and,
  • We recently published this work.

What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflection?

The biggest de-risking event for a biotech company is achieving statistical significance in a phase II clinical trial. If our drug works better than placebo, we greatly de-risk the clinical hypothesis of our drug, and bring it closer to patients. There are many hurdles to get to that readout. We need to manufacture a clinical-supply of our drug, build the right team to execute the clinical plan, and ensure our clinical trial design is optimized for success. But since we’ve acquired the clinical package of DC-TAB, and SerenityBio addressed efficacy predictions for lupus nephritis, we believe the drug is in a good position for success.

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?

Be aware of your limitations. It’s okay to say “I don’t know. What do you think?”

What are some of the must-haves for an early stage Life Sciences startup in your eyes?

Credibility. People looking at the company should be confident that they are looking at the best team to develop their particular drug. This could be demonstrated by publications, prestigious institutions, accomplishments, accolades, and/or awards. The credibility of a team is often used as a heuristic to assess the value of esoteric and complicated science that’s at the core of most therapeutic programs. Also, when things inevitably go sideways, a credible team can make good decisions.

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?

Curious, motivated, truth-seeking, and resilient are some traits I’ve noticed in great founders. Who knows if great founders are constantly this way, but I strive for these traits for myself.

For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?

Not everyone knows everything. Often founders have to learn either the science or the business side better. My advice for picking up new, orthogonal skills is to be patient. You’ll feel inferior for not knowing certain key concepts but you will learn over time.

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?

Our round came together largely because of trust. Diligence was done by asking people who know us, like people in pharma that we were engaging or our current investors, and they all vouched for us and our work. It comes down to trust. Any shakiness in trust would have meant no money.

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❤️ Thanks Michael Bell 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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