MassBio is launching a new series, “MassCONNECT: Where are they now?” which will feature different MassCONNECT graduates and the progress they've made since going through the program. We spoke with co-founders of Platelet BioGenesis, who went through the program in 2014, and whose technology began at Harvard University.
Can you tell us about your therapy and what it's meant to address?
Platelets are the ‘Band-Aids’ of the blood system, stopping bleeding and initiating healing. But our platelet supply comes exclusively from volunteer donors, and there is always a shortage, in large part because platelets only have a two-day effective shelf life. This is the situation in major cities in first world countries — outside of major metropolitan areas, platelets are largely unavailable.
In our first generation, Platelet BioGenesis intends to make therapeutic quantities of functional human platelets for transfusion into patients undergoing surgery, cancer patients who have lost the ability to make platelets, and other who need platelets to stop bleeding. They will be available on demand and much less expensive than current units of donated platelets.
In our second generation, we will be making use of platelets’ natural ability to home to disease and carry payloads in secretory granules hidden inside the cells. We’ll be loading platelets with cancer-killing medicines that they deliver directly to tumors. These “designer platelets” promise to lower systemic side effects and increase the efficacy of cancer treatments, creating a new therapeutic modality to treat tumors.
What were (or are) some of your biggest challenges in launching a new company?
First-time founders often underestimate the importance of human resources. A strong company culture and clear values will align the team, but the infrastructure to support it, such as recruitment and hiring processes, organizational and reporting structures, and meeting structures (among many examples) needs to be able to change and scale as a company grows. Bringing a seasoned manager who has worked through these challenges early in a company’s lifecycle will make a tremendous difference.
Why did you apply to be part of the MassCONNECT program?
We were introduced to MassCONNECT through a friend, who had volunteered as a mentor for MassCONNECT and felt strongly that the quality of mentorship available through MassCONNECT was critical to help bridge the gap in experience of first-time founders at the earliest stages of their biotech company. He was right! Our team of mentors at MassCONNECT quickly identified and directed us to tackle the major challenges in our business plan sooner, which forced us to grow up faster.
How did the Mass CONNECT program help take your company to the next level?
The pace and quality of our interactions with MassCONNECT helped put us on the fast-growth trajectory we are on today. You don’t know what you don’t know, and we believe in trial by fire. MassCONNECT was a pressure-cooker. First, it expanded our network by introducing us to industry leaders in our space. Those leaders then immediately challenged our assumptions and quickly identified gaps in our thinking. There is no better education for an entrepreneur, and we benefitted greatly from the experience.
Can you describe any big wins or major milestones met since you went through the program?
Last year, we raised a $10 million Series A round of funding with a great group of backers including Nest Bio, Qiming Venture Partners, Vivo Capital and VI Ventures. We’ve also answered the major scientific questions regarding 'Can we scale our platelet production?' The next couple of years are now focused on executing on further scale-up and process optimization. Difficult problems, but inherently solvable challenges, which means we've significantly de-risked our business.
Most recently in May 2018, we were awarded a $3.5 million grant by the Department of Defense to create a mobile version of our platelet bioreactor. The hope is we can make platelets available to wounded soldiers on the battlefield and civilians injured in natural disasters.
What’s next for your company/what are you focused on in the coming years?
We’re actively hiring as we move towards clinical trials of our therapeutic platelets. We hope to initiate clinical trials in 2020. We believe that we’ll be able to seek FDA approval of our functional human platelets derived by stem cells based on two phases of trials.
About the Co-Founders:
Jonathan Thon, Ph.D., is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Platelet BioGenesis. Dr. Thon is a leader in platelet science and has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles on platelet production and storage. Prior to co-founding Platelet BioGenesis he was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and ran his own lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he retains a faculty position. He earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Sven Karlsson is the co-founder and president of Platelet BioGenesis. He has more than a decade experience in business development and financial analysis. Prior to co-founding Platelet BioGenesis he worked as a merger and acquisition principal at J.P. Morgan, an analyst at a hedge fund, and as a venture capital investor. He earned his M.B.A. from the Stern School of Business at New York University.
Joseph Italiano, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Platelet BioGenesis. Some of the company’s foundational intellectual property was developed in his lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He serves as a member of the company’s board of directors and as chairman of the scientific advisory board, and is the world’s foremost expert in platelet production.
Learn more about MassCONNECT here.