In February 2020, MassBio launched a new mentoring program, MassCONNECT.DH, to support the growth and success of digital health startups in Massachusetts. This mentoring program, built on the success of MassCONNECT, is the first major initiative under MassBio’s digital health umbrella, MassBio.DH. To gain insight into the journey of the MassCONNECT.DH grads, we sat down with Jon Hu, CEO & Cofounder, and Dr. Samantha Dale Strasser, CSO & Cofounder, Celata Bioinnovations to discuss their experience, how they are helping to drive the convergence between digital health and the life sciences, and the Massachusetts digital health cluster.
Why did you choose to apply for MassCONNECT.DH?
We applied for MassCONNECT.DH to grow as digital health entrepreneurs. MassBio and its startup accelerator, MassCONNECT, sits at the heart of Boston’s healthcare ecosystem. MassCONNECT.DH offers a first-of-its kind opportunity to focus mentorship around topics uniquely relevant to digital health startups. As first-time founders, we were thrilled for this opportunity to address questions ranging from understanding investor or pharma decision-making processes, to teambuilding, and company operations. Watching our mentors’ dialogue, both to build upon and challenge each other’s perspectives, provided us an in-depth look at how the industry sees some of its most challenging issues. Furthermore, we were very appreciative of the mentors’ willingness to meet with us outside of the program and to introduce their network to us
How does your product improve patient outcomes?
Celata Bioinnovations uses biological insights gleaned from understanding protein regulation to discover new and better treatments. Our AI platform uses proprietary data from global, multi-omic measurements, including post-translational modifications, to optimize drug discovery. Specifically, we improve patient outcomes through co-development partnerships with pharma to develop: novel treatments for diseases that currently have no treatment; treatments with better safety and efficacy profiles; and treatments tailored to specific patient populations.
While AI is a powerful tool, its conclusions are only as good as the input data. At Celata, we’re fortunate in having focused on getting the right data since inception. Celata’s foundation is built upon the premise that we’ll generate a more complete understanding of disease biology and treatments by adding protein regulation data to existing drug discovery data. While knowledge of DNA and RNA has significantly improved our understanding of disease, there are many diseases that occur because of molecular signaling dysregulation downstream of DNA and RNA. Thus, it’s crucial to incorporate these downstream processes and their molecular actors – proteins and modified proteins – to understand their function. By creating a unique signature of disease using a full omics panel, we’re able to build a more nuanced understanding of disease pathogenesis and identify novel therapeutic targets that, when hit, have a higher likelihood of treating the disease in human patients. We can also determine a drug’s global effects on patients, enabling us to select drugs with high efficacy and low toxicity. Lastly, by improving our categorization of disease and understanding of a drug’s effects, we’re able to better predict which drugs will work for specific patients
What are the biggest challenges you face as a digital health company? How did MassCONNECT.DH seek to address those?
As a platform company in a new market, we face two main challenges: fundraising while successfully straddling the space between a traditional therapeutic and tech company; and identifying and signing-on the right partners for pilot programs.
Traditional therapeutic companies are typically built around a single therapeutic molecule for a specific disease. Meanwhile, traditional B2B tech companies don’t involve biology, chemistry, regulators, or lengthy time horizons, all of which increase risk. Threading this needle successfully is challenging. MassCONNECT.DH helped us narrow our scope to commercialize what we do best: computational biology and pre-clinical drug discovery. This enables us to focus on developing our product engine while giving investors a higher expected return. Risk is decreased through early revenue while milestone payments helps us capture a drug’s potential upside.
On the customer side, our first few pilot programs must be highly successful to generate the momentum we need to scale our company. Our MassCONNECT.DH mentors helped us prioritize the evaluation criteria to select our ideal partners: highly committed companies enthusiastic to adopt new technologies who can readily integrate our technology and team into their existing workflow with few disruptions.
How has the Massachusetts ecosystem supported your efforts as a digital health company? What separates Massachusetts from other burgeoning digital health clusters across the United States?
As the life science capital of the world, Massachusetts offers one of the largest, most extensive ecosystems for life science companies in general. There are many healthcare and tech industry veterans and successful entrepreneurs who are enthusiastic to offer their insights. It’s also a great place for hiring and discovering new technologies due to the many academic hospitals and research institutions located here. There are also many support services available locally, including investors, consultants, communications experts, CROs, and lawyers. Lastly, many companies in this ecosystem participate in startup accelerators (i.e., MassCONNECT) or networking events (in the BC era – before COVID-19). This has continued to hold true even with virtual events and meetings given the strength of the existing ecosystem
To learn more about MassCONNECT.DH and the MassCONNECT program, contact Rachele Ryan or visit: https://www.massbio.org/innovation-services/massconnect/.
Both cofounders studied Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University where they first learned of their shared vision to develop and apply breakthrough technologies to treat disease and improve lives.
CEO and Cofounder, Celata Bioinnovations
Jon has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and bachelors degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Economics from Northwestern University. Before HBS, he worked in Shire Pharmaceutical’s R&D Business Analytics department prioritizing its R&D portfolio. He began his career as a consultant for Bain & Company, a management consulting company. He then joined Guild Capital, a VC firm, as an investor and entrepreneur-in-residence for its portfolio companies, including serving as interim-CEO of a 300-person enterprise solutions company and as interim-COO of a technology conference.
Dr. Samantha Dale Strasser
CSO and Cofounder, Celata Bioinnovations
Samantha earned a Ph.D. from MIT in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, an M.Phil in Physics from the University of Cambridge, and B.S. degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate program she published research presenting a method to quantify nanoscale properties of biological cells mentored by Vadim Backman, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Allen Taflove, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. As a Churchill Scholar at the University of Cambridge she studied in the Cavendish Lab under the supervision of Sir Richard Friend. She completed her doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT under the mentorship of Douglas Lauffenburger (Professor and founder of Biological Engineering) and Kevin Haigis (Harvard Medical School), investigating phosphoproteomics interpretation applied to studies of cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Her doctoral work provides the foundation for Celata’s technology.