MassBio’s MassCONNECT program is one of the only entrepreneur mentorship programs in Massachusetts that dives deep into the life sciences. The eight-week program matches entrepreneurs and founders with seasoned life sciences professionals to catalyze and commercialize innovation. To learn more about the program and how it supports the startups that participate, we sat down with Katerina Chatzi, Ph.D., and Jasper E. Neggers, Ph.D., Co-Founders, Promakhos Therapeutics.
Why did you choose to apply for MassCONNECT?
We applied for the MassCONNECT program because it offers direct access to a large network of industry experts in the world of life sciences. We are first-time entrepreneurs, and we were eager to explore the life sciences world outside of academia. As seasoned scientists with experience in performing translational research, we felt that we were poised to utilize the MassCONNECT program and the support available through its expert network to its fullest to translate our scientific ideas into a compelling business case. Moreover, as the business was just starting out, we felt that MassCONNECT would provide a great way for us to expand our network and connect with the local life sciences and biotech industry, in addition to providing guidance on the process of fundraising and securing laboratory space in Massachusetts.
How does your idea/technology/product improve patient outcomes?
Promakhos Therapeutics is developing new drugs for inflammatory disorders. Current therapies are immunosuppressive, do not work very well, often require injection and can cause significant side effects. Instead of immunosuppression, we focus on local and controlled modulation of specific elements of the immune system to restore homeostasis. We use our expertise in immunology, cell biology, bacteriology, and drug discovery to develop oral immunomodulatory small molecules with limited side effects.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an emerging startup? How did MassCONNECT seek to address those?
The biggest challenge as an emerging therapeutics startup is no doubt the continuous need to secure financing. As a therapeutics company, the high upfront costs of starting laboratory operations and obtaining the required equipment as well as the limited ways to generate revenue can be especially prohibitive. Managing and establishing a plan to tackle this challenge is an intimidating task and often requires an integrated approach incorporating unique facets of an individual company. MassCONNECT is specifically focused on life sciences and provided us with key insights on fundraising that helped us break down our unique goals and needs. The in-depth discussions with our MassCONNECT mentors then provided us with clarity to plan and ultimately develop a solid fundraising strategy. Furthermore, the program significantly expanded our network.
The second biggest challenge as an emerging therapeutics company is translating the scientific vision and expertise into a compelling and clear business case. With its large network of leading industry experts of diverse backgrounds, MassCONNECT is perfectly poised to help founders develop their story with real-life feedback. The intense nature of the meetings and the background of the mentors helped us to communicate our scientific vision. As a result, the mentors were able to provide tailored business advice and perspectives. At the end of the program, we significantly refined our investor pitch, business strategy and our ability to tell our story to a diverse audience.
How has the Massachusetts ecosystem supported your efforts as a startup? What separates Massachusetts from other leading life sciences clusters across the United States?
The Massachusetts ecosystem is excellent for starting a biotech. As founders of Promakhos Therapeutics, we are both from different European countries and have had the privilege to carry out biomedical science in many different places. The quality, amount, depth, concentration, and resourcefulness of the scientific industry in Massachusetts is unparalleled. We cannot imagine a better environment to start a life sciences company. The high density of highly qualified industry experts, life science companies and translational and highly innovative research and medical institutes provides an astonishing breeding ground for scientific innovation and collaboration. On top of these resources, Massachusetts also has a rich history of industrial development, innovation, and initiatives and has a rich tradition in supporting its businesses and entrepreneurs through its open-minded vision and its focus on scientific rigor and discipline.
To learn more about MassCONNECT and how MassBio supports early-stage startups, visit: https://www.massbio.org/innovation-services/
Katerina Chatzi, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer, President, and Co-founder, Promakhos Therapeutics
Katerina Chatzi serves as the Chief Executive Officer and President of Promakhos Therapeutics. Katerina is a distinguished scientist-entrepreneur with expertise in immunology, protein secretion, biochemistry, bacteriology, cell biology and business development. She has performed biomedical research for over 15 years across four different countries, uncovering fundamental principles underlying bacterial secretion, protein folding, antibiotic resistance, and cell cycle regulation.
Katerina’s scientific journey started at the University of Crete, where she studied mechanisms underlying tolerogenic immunosuppression during pregnancy in mice. She then received an Erasmus fellowship to study antibiotic resistance at Uppsala University in Sweden. Returning to Greece, she received the Excellent Academic Performance Award and started her Ph.D. training to study and reconstitute bacterial secretion systems. For her work, she was awarded the prestigious Heraclitus II fellowship from the National Strategic Innovation Program. Katerina then continued her research on bacterial secretion and protein folding as a Research fellow at the KU Leuven in Belgium.
Katerina arrived in the United States of America to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Recognizing her passion for translational research, she engaged in various business development programs across the Harvard and Massachusetts ecosystems. Through her exposure to different scientific fields as well as clinical and business environments, Katerina realized how her skills can help in the development of novel immunomodulatory therapeutics. She assembled a team and founded Promakhos Therapeutics to carry out her vision.
Jasper E. Neggers, Ph.D.
Chief Scientific Officer, Co-Founder, Promakhos Therapeutics
Jasper Edgar Neggers is the Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of Promakhos Therapeutics. Jasper is an entrepreneurial, pioneering and innovative scientist with a background in microbiology, immunology, cell biology, target identification and validation, drug discovery and functional genomics. His commitment to entrepreneurship, scientific inquiry and translational research stems from his natural curiosity for biology and biotechnology, which manifested as he grew up in the Netherlands.
Jasper performed his Ph.D. studies at the Rega Institute for Medical Research at the KU Leuven, Belgium. He was among the first scientists to apply CRISPR/Cas to genetically engineer human cells. Jasper collaborated with Karyopharm Therapeutics to validate the mechanism of action of the now marketed anticancer drug Selinexor (XPOVIO®) and the clinical stage drug KPT-9274. In Belgium, Jasper also invented a CRISPR-based genetic screening approach to identify the cellular target of candidate drugs.
Jasper arrived in the USA as a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to identify and validate new therapeutic targets for cancer. He quickly distinguished himself and was awarded a Damon Runyon Postdoctoral fellowship, as well as the highly competitive National Cancer Institute Pathway to Independence Award for Outstanding Early-Stage Postdoctoral Researchers. As a fellow, he developed an updated compendium of synthetic lethal interactions in cancer, supported the identification of new metabolic vulnerabilities in pancreatic cancer and continued developing CRISPR/Cas genetic screening approaches. His work has nominated several new high-priority therapeutic targets for gastrointestinal cancers and led to the initiation of new drug discovery campaigns.
Ultimately, Jasper wants his research to translate into patient impact. So, he handed back his million-dollar grant money and joined Katerina to co-found Promakhos Therapeutics.