Q&A: MassBioDrive‘s Inaugural Cohort Checks In

Jun 23, 2022

MassBioDrive is a next-generation accelerator designed to advance breakthrough science while providing opportunities to innovators from all parts of the life sciences ecosystem. Twice a year, MassBio’s community supports a small group of groundbreaking scientists by connecting them with business fundamental curriculum, mentorship, industry connections, and equity free prizes – without taking anything in return. 

From L to R: Shoutian Zhu (PhenoTarget), Juan Pablo Tevini (SYTE.bio), Martin Williams (SYTE.bio), Carolina Alarco (SYTE.bio), Jane Lapon (Atorvia), David Cotnoir-White (Modulari-T), David Allinson (Atorvia), Anna Jagielska (Artificial Axon Labs), Steven Borkan (Atorvia), Kavin Kowsari (Artificial Axon Labs)

Following the success of the inaugural spring 2022 cohort, we sat down with the founders from the five accelerated startups to learn a little more about their experience in the program and plans beyond MassBioDrive. They are: 

  • Anna Jagielska, Ph.D., President, CEO, CSO & Co-Founder of Artificial Axon Labs, which is developing a transformational drug discovery platform to discover medicines for neurodegenerative diseases. 
  • Jane Lapon, CEO of Atorvia Health Technologies, which is developing a kidney-targeted peptide that prevents regulated cell death and kidney failure. 
  • David Cotnoir-White, Ph.D., CEO & Co-Founder of Modulari-T Biosciences, a preclinical stage immunotherapy startup developing a novel platform, the MARC, to reprogram immune cells for oncology and beyond. 
  • Shoutian Zhu, Ph.D., CEO of PhenoTarget Biosciences, a pre-seed startup focused on developing first-in-class therapies for unmet medical needs. 
  • Martin Williams, CEO & Founder of SYTE.bio, an early-stage synthetic biology company focused on the discovery, development, and future commercialization of precision therapeutics using its proprietary Linear DNA and Circular RNA technology platforms. 

Let’s jump right in – tell us where you were at the start of MassBioDrive? What were your goals heading into the program?   

Shoutian: Before applying for the MassBioDrive Spring 2022 cohort, we – as first-time entrepreneurs – were learning everything while doing it. The tasks felt overwhelming. The COVID-19 pandemic overlapped with our incorporation and business initiation stage, which made the process even more challenging. Loneliness also crept in from time to time.  

Anna: Before MassBioDrive we were like a race car with burning engines ready to go but not knowing exactly in what direction. The MBD program greatly structured for us the next steps. We wanted to come out of this program feeling confident about our strategy for the next two years, and I feel we achieved it. 

Jane: Atorvia was at the pre-seed stage, with a peptide-based asset for Acute Kidney Injury in pre-clinical development, ready to commence lead optimization/pre-IND work, and seek our first round of capital.   

Our goals were to build out a comprehensive pre-IND plan & budget and be “investor ready” with finalized business plan and pitch deck/pitch materials ready to commence a seed capital raise process following the end of the MBD program.  

David: Before entering MassBioDrive we had a good sense of the opportunities our technology could bring us, but we were unaware of how we could maximize its value for our company. At MBD we wanted to turn what had been an R&D plan into a business plan. 

During your time with MassBioDrive, which parts of the accelerator did you find most helpful? Did you learn or experience something that surprised you?  

David: One of the most important things we can do as founder[s] is to keep asking questions. How is this done? How can we get from here to there? Who can benefit from our technology?  

Every week MassBioDrive put us in a room with experts that could answer those questions. 

Anna: The videos and working sessions were tremendously helpful. Perhaps the biggest gap we filled was our knowledge of the regulatory process for drug approval – most of the content of this session was new to me. The practical advice from Xontogeny about how to prepare for meetings with investors, to be ready for different time limit scenarios, was also great. 

Martin: Our goals for the program were to learn from the working sessions with [the curriculum experts] as well as from the mentors. We found that the mentoring [meetings] most helpful because we were able to have one-on-one time with the mentors.  

Jane: The diversity of perspective, expertise, and experience of the curriculum experts, our mentors, and the MassBio team enabled us to really pressure test our business plans and ensure our story was clear, well-articulated, and impactful for a variety of audiences and really helped us to gain clarity on our program and what we need to do to succeed. 

The depth and breadth of qualified industry experts and scientists willing to be mentors meant we could find an exact match to the company’s stage of development and immediate goals. 

Shoutian: MassBioDrive is a great educational program that helped us address many lingering questions from intellectual property protection to fundraising strategies and presentation skills. The panel discussions with the mentors of diverse expertise in the biotech industry strengthened our business and development strategies. 

Jane: Although Atorvia has an existing business relationship with Boston University and Boston Medical Center, this was our first real introduction to the Massachusetts life sciences community – one of the biggest surprises was just how vibrant an ecosystem it really is. We had an overwhelmingly positive experience with people willing to help and support, provide advice, facilitate introductions, and be so very generous with their time. This really impacted our progress and informed our decision to establish our US presence in the Massachusetts area. 

Shoutian: We also got to know our fellow startup classmates and support each other’s ventures, which encouraged us to march on.  

What is next for your company after MassBioDrive?  

Shoutian: Through the MassBioDrive program and its social events, we connected with potential partners in the business, and progress has been made to establish productive relationships. Now, PhenoTarget has a bright outlook, we are very grateful to MassBioDrive and its amazing crew. 

Martin: SYTE.bio is working on the in-vivo Proof of Concept, seeking a seed round of $5M, and also open to partnerships.  

Anna: Securing financing, expanding the team to add critical expertise, and then starting lab operations. During the MassBioDrive program, we gained a much deeper understanding of what each of these steps involves, so we are much better prepared to accomplish these goals. 

Jane: Atorvia has now begun a capital raise process for seed funding and is ready to progress optimization & IND enabling work for our first asset. We have a clear vision of how we will operate as a company, have a clear strategy and well defined business plan, and are ready to establish our US presence in the “State of Possible!”  

What advice would you give to other founders who are just starting out?  

Martin: The two most valuable words to other founders that are just starting – patience and perseverance. 

Jane: Build and grow a diverse and broad network early – and use it.  Most people, including Venture Capitalists, are willing to provide advice and will often offer a perspective you may not have considered, so don’t be afraid (or have too big of an ego) to ask. Each networking event, investor forum, meeting, conversation, or pitch is an opportunity to learn, refine, and be more targeted with your messaging, and help build a great and successful company.  

And always pay it forward! 

Anna: Surround yourself with people with relevant experience and learn from them, talk to experts and mentors. This process helps to shape your strategy and improves your confidence. Apply to MBD! 

To join the next cohort of MassBioDrive, apply by July 1 at 12:00PM (noon) ET at: https://www.massbio.org/innovation-services/massbiodrive/ 

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