Founder Spotlight #1: David Mace @ SwiftScale Biologics
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David Mace is Co-Founder & CEO @ SwiftScale Biologics. Previously David was an Entrepreneur in Residence at 8VC, where he focused on the intersection of biology & computer science. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science.
SwiftScale Biologics, a life sciences startup based in San Francisco, California, accelerates time to market for protein drugs by turning a labor-intensive drug production scale-up challenge into a computational challenge.
What prompted you to pursue a career in Life Sciences?
My background is in computer science. I studied computer science at Caltech and then I worked on machine learning at Facebook. After that, I wanted to work on a computer science solution to a biology problem because I thought that some of the most interesting and challenging problems to solve were in biology.
More and more people are entering healthcare from a computer science background. Did you find anything to be difficult in making this transition? How did you pick up the Life Science side of things?
For me it was a very smooth transition because I have been reading drug mechanism papers since I was around 12 years old. My hobbies when I was growing up were hacking together computer science projects and reading biology papers. You end up picking up quite a bit when you have good mentors and read a few papers per day for multiple decades. I also spent a lot of time talking to experts, which over a few years gave me a good sense for the ecosystem and gaps. This hasn’t been a transition as much as being able to turn my hobbies throughout my life into a company.
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?
I was previously an Entrepreneur in Residence at 8VC, where I worked at the intersection of biology and computer science. Prior to this, I worked in a number of roles in drug development, physical chemistry, and algorithmic computer science. Earlier in my career, I worked on machine learning at Facebook and IBM Watson. I studied computer science at Caltech.
What problem is your company solving? How did you become motivated to tackle this particular problem?
The biggest limiting factor in bringing a new drug to a clinical trial is actually the manufacturing scale-up. For a protein drug like an antibody, it normally costs ~$7 million dollars and takes ~18 months to produce enough of the drug to treat patients in a 20-person clinical trial. Our technology enables an order of magnitude change in scaleup time and scaleup internal cost. We focus on next generation drug classes that are infeasible with incumbent methods.
What does your company do?
We enable scientists to advance drug programs that would otherwise be infeasible. Cell-free protein synthesis is the fastest way to engineer biology. We use our robust and scalable cell-free technology to enable protein variety, throughput, and speed that are infeasible with incumbent cell-based synthesis.
What is your company’s founding story?
Mike Jewett (Co-Director of the Northwestern University Center for Synthetic Biology) and Matthew DeLisa (Director of the Cornell University Institute of Biotechnology) spent years developing our core technology in their academic labs.
I was an EIR at 8VC and I was looking broadly across the ecosystem for ways to speed up the drug development process. I was fascinated by Mike and Matt’s technology and we decided to start SwiftScale together to enable the biotech industry to benefit from their cell-free technology.
What are some of the notable milestones your company has achieved thus far?
We scaled our technology to clinical scale, which was a major feat spanning a decade in our academic co-founders’ labs and our company.
What are some of the biggest hurdles ahead? How do these create points of value inflection?
Our primary milestone is the number of drug scaleups that we can complete per year. We are a revenue-driven services company rather than a capital-intensive, risk-assuming biotech company.
Pay It Forward
Throughout the journey, what has been some of your biggest takeaways thus far? What advice/words of wisdom would you share from your story for other founders?
Stay true to the underlying problem. For SwiftScale, we identified a challenge that we wanted to solve — we want to enable faster drug development and help hundreds of drugs get to clinical trials. We have never wavered in our commitment to solving that problem and understanding that specific customer need. Having this north star is important.
What are some of the must haves for an early stage Life Science startup in your eyes?
World-class talent is definitely the most important must-have. Every hard-tech company, whether in biology, material science, etc, requires meshing experts in several niche skillsets. In our case, there are three specific skillsets that we needed world-class talent in (cell-free is one). Bringing all of these skillsets under one roof, finding people who will operate well in a startup environment, and ensuring that those people work well together is the top must-have.
What advice for managing & hiring a great team can you share?
It is vital to maintain authenticity to the problem that we have set out to solve. Our whole team is united by our mission of ‘getting 100 new drugs to patients’. Highly skilled people want to work in an environment where they can be creative. It is much easier to build a winning culture if everyone is aligned on an impactful mission and understands how their decisions impact the company’s 1–2 key near-term goals.
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