Founder Spotlight #41: Bryan Mazlish @ Surf Bio
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Surf Bio is a preclinical biopharmaceutical company leveraging a breakthrough next-generation surfactant to develop enhanced therapeutic solutions for diabetes, oncology, infectious diseases, gene therapy, and other therapeutic areas. As the first application of the technology, Surf Bio is developing a novel, ultra-rapid insulin for treatment of diabetes. In parallel, Surf Bio is partnering with pharmaceutical and biotech companies to incorporate the novel stabilization platform into their proprietary products. Launched by the founders of Bigfoot Biomedical and Mode AGC, Surf Bio was founded to commercialize a breakthrough drug stabilization technology developed in the Appel Lab at Stanford University. Commercially, the technology is designed to enable reduction of refrigeration requirements, transition from IV to subcutaneous therapy, and novel pharmaceutical formulations across a range of therapeutic areas.
Bryan Mazlish is Co-Founder & CEO @ Surf Bio, an early stage biotech startup focused commercializing novel drug stabilization technology. He has been in the life sciences industry for over a decade, since a family diagnosis led him to develop novel insulin delivery systems for the treatment of diabetes. This work led to his co-founding Bigfoot Biomedical in 2014, a medical device company focused on more scalable diabetes therapies leveraging algorithms and AI. In 2021, FDA cleared Bigfoot’s first product, Bigfoot Unity. Bryan presently serves as a Board Member of Bigfoot after leaving his role as President in 2020. Prior to making the transition to life sciences, Bryan led a successful career in quantitative finance, first as management at Citi, and subsequently as an entrepreneur, where he founded and led a fully automated trading company, Overlook Capital. Bryan graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College.
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?
In 2011, I was running a quant trading fund when my son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I was fortunate to have the flexibility to do something about his diagnosis. So I turned my small trading company into a diabetes technology company. Along with my wife, Sarah, who is a physician also living with type 1 diabetes, I created the first do-it-yourself artificial pancreas by hacking an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor and integrating them with proprietary automated insulin dosing algorithms. This system was transformative for our family and I decided that I wanted to work in life sciences to bring these types of solutions to as many people as possible. After almost two decades in finance, I knew that moving into life sciences full time was what I wanted to do with my professional life going forward.
How did you get your training to be able to build your company?
I had deep business experience from my days in finance; both managing at a large investment bank and founding and building a smaller quant trading company. These experiences gave me both the resources and the confidence to embark on a new journey in the life sciences space. In addition, automated insulin delivery has a remarkable number of similarities to automated stock trading so many of my quantitative skills transferred over quite well to this new venture. As I often joke in telling this story: it’s a lot easier to predict glucose levels than stock prices!
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?
My initial foray into life sciences was in the medical device space at a diabetes technology company that I cofounded, Bigfoot Biomedical. Bigfoot recently received FDA clearance for its first product, Bigfoot Unity, and is in the early stages of commercialization. We are really excited about Bigfoot’s opportunity to make a large impact in a very underserved population of people living with diabetes. In 2020, after almost six years, I left my role as president of Bigfoot and remain an active board member for the company to this day. This transition opened the door to explore other opportunities that eventually led to the founding of Surf Bio.
What problem is your company solving?
There are many challenges to delivering many modern, life-changing therapeutics to patients who can benefit from them. Maintaining proper temperature during shipping and storage and requiring extended, in-clinic intravenous infusions are two of the more notable challenges of delivering many of today’s biologics. This is especially acute throughout low- and middle-income countries. With the large expansion in use of monoclonal antibody therapeutics, the problem will only grow. Surf Bio seeks to mitigate or eliminate many of these challenges by enabling more stable formulations that can withstand greater temperature variations and can be formulated into doses that can be delivered via injection in lieu of an IV drip.
Quite simply, what does your company do?
Surf Bio manufactures a novel biotechnology polymer that massively enhances the stability of drug formulations. Our technology is a drug additive that makes other drugs better. We develop proprietary therapeutics and partner with biotech and pharma companies on their proprietary products to make highly differentiated products.
Now in more depth, what are the specifics of what your company does?
Surf Bio manufactures a proprietary, novel polymer that greatly enhances the stability of biologic formulations. The polymer may be incorporated into drug formulations to enhance their stability and enable alternative opportunities for storage and delivery.
Why does your solution matter for the world when you get it right?
Our early data points to an ability to enable temperature stable vaccines that do not require refrigeration, subcutaneous injections in lieu of IV treatments for cancer and other chronic antibody treatments, and the creation of novel therapeutics that are currently too unstable to be made into drugs. There is an explosion in the use of biologics and the ability to make them more convenient and accessible is a very large unmet need that we seek to address.
Tell us about the founding of your company — how did you meet your co-founder and how did everything come together?
I first learned about the work of my cofounder, Eric Appel, from long time friend and fellow cofounder, Jen Schneider. Jen has a personal connection to type 1 diabetes as well which is how we first met more than a decade ago. A physician and longtime Palo Alto resident, Jen closely follows the ongoing diabetes research at nearby Stanford University. Jen heard Eric present about a breakthrough novel insulin formulation that he had developed in his lab. Immediately she recognized that this insulin had the potential to be transformative for diabetes management. Since Jen and I both have a clear understanding of the needs for insulin therapy from our personal experience as well as our recent work in the automated insulin delivery space, we thoroughly appreciated the enormous implications of such an insulin.
We had heard that Eric was considering starting a company to commercialize this technology and the three of us began talking about starting a company in late 2020. It was at this point that Jen and I became more fully aware of the broad applicability of Eric’s novel technology. Yes, the insulin opportunity was huge in its own right but the utility of such a novel polymer for therapeutics more broadly was even larger! We moved very quickly from talking to forming a company so that we could start to drive some of these potentially life changing solutions to market.
Fortunately, both Jen and I are seasoned entrepreneurs so we knew exactly what needed to happen when we were ready to move forward. We founded Surf Bio at the beginning of 2021 and have been off to the races ever since.
What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?
Over the past 1.5 years, our team has moved the technology and company forward in a number of meaningful ways. We have added to the academic proof of concept data to include monoclonal antibodies and vaccines through both our internal work and work with partners. We have established three meaningful collaborations with multinational pharma companies and count a number more in the pipeline. Data from these collaborations are already creating a virtuous cycle of enabling further collaborations.
We further resourced all of the key roles in our company to move the technology forward through a development pathway. All of this work culminated in our recent $16M Series Seed funding led by financing partners Breakout Ventures and Perceptive Xontogeny Venture Fund. We are thrilled to have these investors onboard and look forward to building a great enterprise together with them.
What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflection?
Our current focus is two-fold:
- We are driving our ultra-rapid insulin program forward and look to be in our first human trial next year. This initial human data will be a key value inflection point.
- We are also driving our technology platform forward through partnerships with a goal of establishing a development and commercialization deal in the near future.
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 piece of company building advice that I received that most sticks in my mind is: build it to succeed. If you don’t, then you will fail. This can mean a lot of different things, however, the most important is to believe in what you are doing and make decisions that presuppose a positive outcome without being blinded by your optimism.
What are some of the must-haves for an early stage Life Sciences startup in your eyes?
The must-haves for an early stage Life Sciences startup is more or less the same as for any successful business: you need to have a differentiated technology or approach and founders who are capable of executing. If you have these two things then anything is possible. The founders will bring in the appropriate resources to develop a winning technology and, with the right strategy, there is nothing to stop them from success.
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?
A great founder is capable of vision and optimism while keeping their feet on the ground. Combine that with passion, tons of hard work, and a mission that people will get behind and you have a recipe for success.
For folks coming out of academia, what advice would you share?
Find a mentor to help you in coming up the business/operations curve. Understand that a great idea and science are about 10% of the making of a great and successful startup. The rest is not rocket science but understanding what is to come and how to avoid pitfalls and landmines in the early stages is critical.
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?
Be humble and open to learning. If possible, find a cofounder who has complementary skills — this would not only create more breadth across the founding team but also give you a tremendous opportunity to learn new skills from someone you will work with very closely. In addition, seek out advisors and mentors and use them! Offer them equity to give them a stake in the game. Arm yourself with the best people around you that you are able to muster.
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?
VCs are looking at all aspects of your business — the team, the technology, and the business opportunity. It all matters and your job is to convince the investors that your startup is a better bet than the hundreds that they will turn down this year. Recognize that finding a fit between a company and a VC is a two way street — your startup needs to match the VC’s investment profile and the VC needs to be a fit for your vision. Find advisors or co-founders who have been through the process. Read all of the many blogs on the internet that demystify the entire fundraising process — they are an invaluable resource for understanding the perspective of the venture investor.
What advice for managing and hiring a great team can you share?
For those founders without management experience, read up on what you are getting into! Having a great mission makes it so much easier to bring people onboard. Many new founders fail to recognize that, once the team starts to grow, their primary responsibility is to serve the team rather than execute themselves. That means making decisions, and sticking with them until it’s truly warranted to change. And, of course, make it fun. Everyone loves to work at a place where they enjoy their colleagues and feel they are contributing to a meaningful mission.
I close by expressing my eternal gratitude for finding my way into the life science space. Spending my professional days creating better solutions for human health is incredibly fulfilling. While it was a bit of a leap for me after almost two decades in finance, the skills that I developed there turned out to be remarkably transferable. For readers considering a change of domain into life sciences, I heartily recommend it. Go find something you are passionate about and dive right in. You won’t regret it.
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❤️ Thanks Michael Bell for your help in putting this together :)
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