Breaking into the MA Innovation Ecosystem: The Journey of a MassCONNECT® Grad

Dec 02, 2019

Q&A with Kareem Barghouti, Co-Founder and CEO, VastBiome

As the #1 life sciences cluster in the world, Massachusetts presents a unique allure to life sciences companies across the globe. But, for startups on the path to commercialization, breaking into this ecosystem – without access to its expansive network – can often coincide with the “valley of death”. To get a first-hand look at this journey, MassBio’s Chief Business Officer, John Hallinan, recently sat down with Kareem Barghouti, Co-Founder and CEO of VastBiome, a recent MassCONNECT graduate.

Why did you decide to come to Massachusetts when you’re based in the Bay Area and got your start in Houston? What does the MA ecosystem offer that these areas don’t?

We started in Houston as part of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMC). Our company spun out of the TMC Biodesign Fellowship program where we spent a year identifying unmet needs within the Houston medical community. VastBiome was born through a number of discussions and observations with various medical professionals expressing the value of understanding the role of the microbiome in treating disease. 

Following the fellowship, we moved to the Bay Area, where most of our team is from, to establish ourselves and participate in a number of accelerators (Illumina Accelerator and Plug and Play). 

What intrigued us about coming to Massachusetts was the biotech ecosystem that Boston/Cambridge has built and the various microbiome companies that have established themselves in the region. We had not yet made an effort to grow our network in Massachusetts, until a friend of ours who completed the MassCONNECT program recommended we apply.  Once accepted, we thought it would make sense to participate and hopefully make a few strong local connections. 

Looking back after completing the 8-week MassCONNECT program, this may have been the most productive and fruitful 2 months of our company’s existence. The sheer density of top-quality talent and expertise is second to none. Within a few square miles, you have access to industry leaders who are willing to meet and mentor you. We spent months prior trying to get in front of various prospective partners based in Massachusetts. Spending the summer establishing our MA network had accelerated our company’s trajectory for fundraising, product, and business development strategy. While other cities have the resources, the energy and community that MA has built around the biotech industry is truly special. A company’s chances to succeed are exponentially greater when instilling themselves within the MA network. The knowledge and resources at your disposal from both academia and industry enables a company to fast track their learnings and prevent inevitable mistakes by connecting with various individuals to provide high-value mentorship.

Biotech is a highly competitive industry. The MA ecosystem allows companies and individuals to open up and support one another’s growth. You can’t enforce such actions. They are built over time, trust and respect. 

Your technology represents the convergence between digital tech and biotech – how has this presented both challenges and opportunities for your company and for patients? How are you getting the expertise needed on both sides?

VastBiome’s core competency sits at the intersection of computation and science. Until recently, it was not possible to sequence and analyze data at an affordable and scalable rate. These technological advancements have enabled various opportunities for tech to drive science into new territories of exploration and for small companies, like VastBiome, to have a fighting chance to make it in what is known to be a capital and resource intensive field. That said, with the barrier of entry reduced, this opens up the field for various new companies to enter the market, including us. While great for the field, this comes with significantly more competition and what could be considered “noise”.  The terms “artificial intelligence and machine learning” have begun to lose their allure and are considered buzzwords that, in most cases, are not being applied to the level of driving true value creation. Industry partners and investors have become numb to these technologies, setting a high bar to get buy-in – especially when some groups have abused the value of what technology can bring to the field of medicine, promising more than they can deliver. This is increasingly concerning when it comes to trusting these technologies in treating patients, which is why we all got involved with the field to begin with. While technology is powerful and can lead to great discoveries, keeping the trust of the patients and ensuring they are not put in a potentially harmful situation is critical. VastBiome addresses these concerns by ensuring that we are surrounding ourselves with both tech and biotech professionals.  These industries take very different approaches to solving large unmet needs and their business models are quite different. Tech expects short-term returns while biotech companies are expected to wait 10 years for commercializing a potential asset. Understanding those differences and creating a hybrid approach to minimize risk as best we can is something we spend a lot of time on at VastBiome. 

How has the MassCONNECT program helped accelerate your path to commercialization?

MassCONNECT has helped us develop a clear understanding of our path forward in both the short-term and long-term. Being put in front of 15 mentors weekly for 8 weeks and presenting to them a number of burning questions is an invaluable opportunity. You are getting access to the experience and knowledge of industry veterans who have held senior positions at Fortune 500 companies. Companies typically spend tens of thousands of dollars to get access to this type of network. In addition, the variety of perspectives helps paint a picture of how key stakeholders think about specific questions/ideas that we’ve raised. It is up to the company to digest the feedback and decide what is the best action forward. 

VastBiome has accelerated our path to commercialization by having determined where to spend our capital and time to deliver the highest value to best position us for our seed round milestones. We have refined our business model to clearly illustrate our value and how we plan to grow into a full-fledged drug developer. Furthermore, we have established a strong network of individuals who are willing to support our efforts, covering the entire spectrum of expertise needed to build a drug discovery company (e.g. business development, IP strategy). Overall, we would not be where we are today if we had not participated in MassCONNECT. 

See all MassBio News