By: Purnima Hariharan Geetha
MIT Media Lab’s Bartos Theater was packed with startup teams, investors, and guests on Thursday, May 18 to witness the Final Pitch of Nucleate’s fifth-year activator program. The event included five finalists on the bio track and two on the eco track.
Before we head to the winners and the enthralling stories behind my favorite startups, I will shine some light on the amazing initiative that Nucleate has taken in structurally bridging the world of scientists and aspiring entrepreneurs with business leaders and a highly experienced board of advisors. The co-founder and co-president, Soufiane Aboulhouda started off with the event introducing Nucleate as a non-profit educational organization in the life sciences whose mission is to empower the next generation of biotech leaders by empowering today’s academic trainees.
Following the introduction, all the finalists pitched their startups quite impressively, but two of them caught my attention in particular.
Believer Pharmaceuticals – a truly diverse, women-led startup from Dr. Li Chai’s lab at Mass General Brigham – had a very humble approach of “Drugging the undruggable.” They are developing a novel protein degradation therapeutic targeting Zinc Finger transcription factor for rebellious cancer treatments along with an ultrasensitive companion diagnostic assay. The story of Believer goes back over two decades, when their co-founder, Dr. Li Chai was in her residency training, witnessed a very tragic stillborn event and was unable to provide the desperate family with any plausible cause. This was before the Human Genome Project was completed, when physicians knew little about the genetic cause of diseases. Dr. Chai believed there must be a reason and she set out to investigate this case in her lab. She discovered the SALL family gene with germline mutation getting associated with developmental defects and stillbirths. From further research, Dr. Chai and Dr. Tenen found a novel oncofetal protein target, SALL4, one of the key proteins involved in embryonic mechanisms that cancers hijack, to bolster cell growth. Over the years, Believer had exploited the drugability of the zinc-finger transcription factor, SALL4 for intractable cancer treatment along with an ultrasensitive companion diagnostic assay.
Their study involved Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) as proof of concept, which grabbed my attention as we at Massnex are always more interested in therapeutics for rare diseases. I was fortunate to have had a conversation with Dr. Jun, the science lead at Believer, about the future of the product and its applications for other rare diseases like acute myeloid leukemia, which may have a similar approach to treatment as HCC. As a team with strong ‘beliefs’ Dr. Jun says, “At Believer, we strive to tackle one of the most difficult challenges in biopharma – targeting transcription factors for the treatment of intractable solid tumors and blood cancers.” She humbly started byexplaining how the protein is present in all human fetal cells as it is responsible for limb development but gets silenced over the years in adult tissues and is only re-expressed when the human develops cancer. Their studies have shown that, unlike other oncofetal proteins like Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), SALL4 is not just a tumor marker but a bonafide tumor driver. Believer has an interesting peptide-based inhibitor for SALL4 that surpasses immunogenicity and off-target effects, which are considered some of the major challenges of drugs with a protein target. Their product and pitch being very promising, Believer won the 1st Place Regional Activator Award for the Bio track.
Another notable startup Olden Labs won the People’s Choice Award. CEO and Founder Dr. Micheal Florea gave a very engaging presentation with his timely puns and brilliant product advocacy. They have meticulously made use of robotics for animal handling for the service as their product. We are in the era of animal handling being involved in 89.5% of drugs in their development and the number of new drugs getting introduced into the market increase by 60% every decade. Noy only does this emphasize the number of animals used for research but also the potential market returns for the service that Olden Labs has innovated. Animal research has multiple challenges that must be overcome such as the inconsistency in data, loss of the model, and most importantly the high handling cost. The estimated cost of animal testing involved in one drug’s development costs $550,000. The team has patented their model of Smart Cages with sensors for data collection and monitors up to four mice models simultaneously, with the cost of one cage reduced to only $463. The simplicity of their service, the reduction in costs, and the astonishingly sparse number of competitors in the market was fascinating. This led me to strike up a conversation with Dr. Michael during the delightful dinner the Nucleate had arranged for us. After congratulating the CEO for the award and on recently completing his PhD, I started off by asking him how he produced such an interesting idea with his biology background. To my surprise, Michael had a lot to share with all of it revolving around how “networking” played a crucial role in brainstorming ideas and finding his purpose in life. He shared his aspiration to become a super-networker, as it is more important for his startup now. I would suggest my dear readers to get a copy of Dr. Michael’s favorite book, “Never Eat Alone”by Keith Ferrazzi, which is a fine guide to getting your feet wet in the art of networking.
I would like to congratulate the other winners of yesterday’s activator event. Envirobe won the 1st Place Regional Activator Award in the Eco track. Their startup is based on their innovative plastic recycling mechanism involving biochemicals and microbes that break down PETs (PolyEthyleneTerephthalate) back to their chemical precursors. NeuroBionicsbagged the 2nd place Regional Activator Award in the Bio track for their ingenious, seamless, and naturalistic prosthetic limbs that are arm bands connecting to fibers as thin as a bunch of hair strands.
My first-ever networking event has not only made me feel grateful for conversing with founders as they took me through their ideating process but has also made me realize the multitude of work and years of research involved even in the simplest of products to successfully set foot into the market. I was overwhelmed by how inclusive and heard I felt in a room filled with scientists and business leaders, twice as experienced. This event has taught me two important lessons to carry in life: it is never too late to start fresh and how quintessential it is to be humble no matter where you reach.
Purnima Hariharan Geetha is a standout international graduate student at Northeastern University with an immense passion for Oncology and Drug Development. She enjoys learning how entrepreneurs think and hopes to one day join an exciting Oncology startup. Originally from Chennai, India, she is excited to step into the journalism world with this amazing opportunity experiencing and exploring the Boston ecosystem first-hand with Massnex News.
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