The finalists in the Young Innovator category of the 2017 Xconomy Awards show that it’s never too early in life to start a company or invent a new technology. These four individuals (30 years of age or under) share a strong drive, even a restlessness, to build new things that make a difference. Three knew early on that, despite spending time in academic labs, they wanted to hatch a startup and use it to help make that difference. One has opted to stay in academia to open up new ways of peering deeper into cells. Here are brief introductions to the Young Innovator finalists.
Fei Chen – Cell Expander, 27
Fei Chen learned quickly as a first-year grad student at MIT how hard it is to build a high-resolution light microscope to better study cells and tissues. During a brainstorming session in the lab, neuroscientist and lab head Ed Boyden suggested to Chen and others that physically expanding tissue samples could increase imaging resolution without having to build or buy expensive new microscopes. “At first, we thought the idea was maybe a joke,” says Chen, but it was easy enough to try. So they injected specific molecules into a biological sample, where the molecules formed a gel that expanded the cells and tissues from within. The result: once cell components were pushed apart, a light microscope was able to distinguish them. This technique has been used by many researchers across the country, giving them a four to fivefold boost in resolution. One day, pathologists might use it to diagnose diseases. Chen was involved in a small study, for instance, showing that the method could reveal fine-grained disease-related details in human kidney and breast tissue using common imaging equipment. Now as a fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Chen is leading a small group and working with scientists at a startup called Readcoor (also an Awards finalist, in the Big Idea category) to apply DNA sequencing tools to cells his technology has expanded.
Craig Russo – Biotech Matchmaker, 24
While working in a couple of Harvard Medical School labs, Craig Russo saw first-hand the glut of postdocs all vying for a shrinking number of academic positions. After speaking with one of his research advisors at Harvard, Amar Sahay, about how this surplus of scientific knowledge could be better used by the life sciences industry, the two joined up and hatched the idea for LabMate. The website, which went live in May, allows academic scientists to post profiles offering their services as consultants to drug developers and investors. These firms can also post short-term projects—anything from bioinformatics analyses to literature reviews and experiment troubleshooting—and LabMate aims to match the companies with the scientists. Ideally, the consulting projects would lead to full-time industry jobs for the scientists. Russo is LabMate’s CEO and decided to launch the startup after leaving the lab and spending two years with company creator PureTech Health, where Russo got to work with experienced biotech entrepreneurs and investors and learn the skills to build his own company (Daphne Zohar, PureTech’s founder and CEO, is an Awards judge but is not judging this category). Through LabMate, Russo says he hopes to have an impact on patient care, even if it’s a little indirect. “I’m going to hopefully have a hand in affecting multiple R&D programs across multiple companies,” he says.
Armon Sharei – Cell Squeezer, 30
Armon Sharei bided his time in the lab, and even contemplated life as an academic, before deciding to jump into the startup world. As a grad student at MIT, he invented a technology that disrupts cell membranes enough to allow large molecules like proteins to quickly slip inside cells. This method turned out to be simpler and more effective than other techniques. So Sharei, along with MIT’s Robert Langer (who is an Awards judge but is not judging this category) and Klavs Jensen, started a company, SQZ Biotech, to sell the cell-squeezing tool to academic researchers. Sharei was actively involved with SQZ from the start, but wanted to stay in academia. During his grad student years at MIT and his time as a postdoc in a Harvard immunology lab, however, Sharei realized the technology might be useful not just as a tool for academic researchers, but as a way to soup up immune cells and use them for immunotherapies for cancer and other diseases too. So SQZ switched its focus in 2015 to developing drugs, and Sharei joined the company as its CEO. Sharei realized he needed to work full-time for SQZ to have its best shot at success. “Even if you think your discovery will make an impact, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to happen,” says Sharei. The company has an alliance with Roche to develop cell therapies for cancer, is moving towards its first clinical trials, and raised $24 million in Series B funding last year.
Andrew Warren – Diagnostic Maker, 28
Even as a grad student at MIT, Andrew Warren was already an entrepreneur in training. He was drawn to the lab of Sangeeta Bhatia at MIT (also an Awards finalist, in the Innovation at the Intersection category) in part because of her track record of commercializing work from her lab. “I’ve been interested in technology commercialization for a long time and I wanted it to be part of my PhD,” says Warren. When Warren joined, Bhatia’s lab already had the basic technology for an experimental urine-based diagnostic in place. The idea: Inject protein-carrying nanoparticles into lab animals (patients eventually), and enzymes linked to the disease would break up those proteins into beacon molecules that are then detected in urine. But the system still needed a lot of work to make it work outside of a university lab. So Warren dove in, making the technology simpler and more reliable and adapting it for use in diagnosing and monitoring a liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Along the way, Warren also developed a version of the diagnostic that would work like a pregnancy test. Soon after Warren graduated with his PhD in early 2016, he joined Glympse Bio as Founding Scientist. Bhatia and her former postdoc Gabe Kwong had co-founded the company a year earlier, which now plans to start clinical trials in late 2018 and raise a Series A round next year.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep Warren busy, he and three fellow students created the MIT Biotech Group, which connects grad students and postdocs to the biotech community to help them learn about careers in drug development and find jobs. Formed in 2015, the initiative quickly attracted 1,000 members. “We saw a huge latent demand for it,” says Warren.