A Changing Biotech Ecosystem: One Startup’s New York Story

There’s no doubt that the biotech industry has grown rapidly in New York City in the past decade. The landscape has changed from the domination of a few large pharmaceutical companies to a wide array of many biotech companies. Some New York-based startups, like Kallyope, have grown from a few founders to a team of dozens.

At Unexpected Biotech, the CEO of Kallyope, Nancy Thornberry, spoke with IndieBio NY Adjunct Partner (and longtime NY biotech entrepreneur) Michael Aberman about the changes to New York Biotech that have situated the city as a great place to found a biotech startup. 

See the future of biotech at IndieBio Demo Days!

Why New York? New York City has become a choice location for biotech startups because of its abundance of diverse talents, capital, and resources.

A wealth of biotech talent 

In addition to attracting international scientists, New York City has universities and pharmaceutical companies that provide an ample supply of diverse talents. New York City boasts 107 Nobel Prize Laureates (that number expands to 201 if you include New York State), and these top-ranked programs have attracted pools of biology, medical, and tech talent.

New York City offers much in the way of diverse backgrounds, as well. Kallyope never had a diversity goal but there is an enormous amount of diversity among employees at every level. Thornberry said, “If you interview the best and brightest in New York, you are going to get a highly diverse population.”

Low employee turnover rate

Before joining Kallyope, Thornberry worked at Merck for 30 years, an admitted unusually long employment in the biotech and pharma industries. But Thornberry has found those working in New York also have a longer career appointment than in sibling biotech cities.

During her time at Kallyope, for example, Thornberry estimates a lower than 5% employee turnover rate, compared to around 25% in San Francisco. This stability of employees saves companies a lot of investment in recruiting and training. 

A plenitude of capital and investors

Investors in New York are excited about new biotech and believe the potential of biotech to continuously deliver value to patients. In addition, proximity to financial institutes makes fundraising easier (at least pre-COVID19, when geographic proximity made it easier to schedule meetings). 

Kallyope is supported by cutting-edge technologies, such as single cell sequencing, computational mapping, optogenetics, and organoid culture. And Kallyope was able to raise over 250 million dollars over three rounds and establish a strong investor base.  

Accessible real estate 

With New York City and State investing in lab spaces, increasing numbers of wet lab options are available to early-stage startups. Kallyope is located in Alexandria Center for Life Science, a complex looking over the east river, and was able to work with the landlord to expand four times within the same floor. 

Over the past few years, even more lab spaces, like JLabs, were built in New York City, further decreasing the cost of real estate, with additional lab spaces scheduled to open soon. 

Biotech founders community

One of the most important resources, especially for first-time CEOs, is a network of startup founders for support. When Thornberry started, she made a number of connections and leveraged their strength to help her build Kallyope.

Six years into its journey, Kallyope has 2 de novo programs in clinic trials. The culture of teamwork and being nimble contribute to Kallyope’s success. The future will witness more successful biotech startups, such as Kallyope, thrive in New York City. 

Stembionix: Vascularization Technology to Enable Organ Growth

Stembionix is creating the biofabrication infrastructure necessary to grow organs from stem cells. Their innovative vascularization technology is built with the goal of surmounting the challenge of culturing organoids: namely, growing organs larger than 8 mm diameter, at which point the internal cells lose nutrient access and die.  Their vascularization technology is complemented by other systems needed to automate cell culture collection and maintenance.

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We spoke with Stembionix Co-founder & CEO Ethan Stillman to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

What’s the key insight that led to the formation of Stembionix?

When I look at the state of art stem cell technologies, I ask myself: “Are we the first generation of humans that can legitimately make a claim to live for 200 or 400 years?” That’s a wild question to think about. But if we can solve a couple technical hurdles, we are there. And some of the big hurdles are the vascularization challenge and at-scale manufacturing of these biosystems. That’s exactly what we took on. We are super excited to think about where we can get to with this. 

Building organs is a big challenge. What are you tackling first?

As any new company, our strategy is subject to change. But at present, we make liquid robots. Those are automated systems for culturing tissues or cells. We found a lot of market interests in the robots themselves. 

In addition, this vascularization capability is a platform. Any organoids scientists make can be vascularized. And there are academic needs for vascularization tissues at various stages, from the initial vascularization—how it changes the system and biomolecules produced—to down the road—how big it can get and how to improve that. So, there are lots of research applications there. 

We also want to be translational and be ready for transplant. For example, you will have a heart replacement that’s harvested from your leg. If we can generate that, that would be obviously very useful. 

As a company, we want to make those robots useful to researchers and, in parallel, develop translational regenerative medicine. 

How does Stembionix technology compare with other regenerative medicine technologies?

The 3D printing approach gets a lot of attention. And it sounds good—I want to 3D print a heart. But if you think about the mechanism of 3D printing, it’s not a good engineering approach. 

3D printing uses a little nozzle to deposit things. To print an organ, it will need to deposit cells. So, we have to figure out which cell types we need. A cell type is your cells with different genes turned on and off. So, we have to figure out which genes are on and off at which locations in your organ and toggle it properly. Or we will have to load the printer with some generic cells similar to the one that should be there. 

After placing the cells, we have to hope it binds in a proper way to its neighbors. There are multiple ways cells connect and multiple ways cells talk. Just putting it there and hoping, doesn’t seem like a good engineering approach, from my engineering background. 

What is more interesting to me is the notion that, miraculously, if you take 2000 stem cells and add some cells of the target organ type, those stem cells start to turn into that organ and form an organoid. Then, you take this organoid and put it in some nutrients. The organoid starts to grow and develop. 

But as those organoids grow, the interior cells don’t get the nutrition from the nutrient bath. The outside cells absorb all of the nutrients, so the interior dies. 

To solve that, you need vasculature. Structures like arteries deliver nutrients deep into tissues and remove wastes. If you can grow vasculature and get that vasculature to penetrate the organoid, It’s been shown in various ways that this organoid can grow into a full organ

We can only take the credit for a little engineering work to get these veins to grow. But the tools that biologists have given us are remarkable—let’s not make this a human engineering thing; let’s make use of what nature gives us. It’s just a better way to leverage and go with biology rather than take a skyscraper and make a structural approach. It’s too huge and too engineering centric. 

What’s the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?

Personally speaking, the most rewarding part is the fact that this is possible. Your daily work is making an impact in some meaningful way in other people’s lives in the world. It’s mind bending. 

If I keep doing this and I do it honestly, wholeheartedly, and strategically, it can really change how the world works. That idea is motivating to me.

Theoretically, we can live to be 150 or 200 years old with Stembionix technology. That’s such an abstract idea for the current human existence. But the notion that there is some valid probability for us to achieve that, is super fascinating. That keeps me going.

Harmony Baby Nutrition: Formulas for Human Babies (not calves)

Harmony Baby Nutrition
Harmony Baby Nutrition

Harmony Baby Nutrition makes baby formula that more closely represents human breast milk than any other formula on the market. Their secret? Precise fermentation of human breast milk protein to replace commonly used cow’s milk. One in five infants has an allergy to cow’s milk protein, which means one in five infants cannot use standard baby formulas. Harmony’s formula creates a better option for parents of allergic babies, to offer a nutrition source similar to breast milk.

See Harmony Baby Nutrition at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Harmony Baby Nutrition Founder & CEO Wendel de Oliveira Afonso to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

What motivated you to start Harmony Baby Nutrition?

I’ve been in the baby nutrition space for a very long time, over 15 years. I used to produce formulas for babies using cow’s milk, the usual main ingredient. But here’s the problem: cow’s milk is different from human breast milk. Cow’s milk protein is fundamentally different from human breast milk protein—It’s for calves. The technology we have to produce baby formulas has changed, so why haven’t baby formulas? That’s the question I asked myself. 

On a personal level, I also have a baby, who is two years old now. She was a cow’s milk allergic baby. So, I do have both experiences that motivated me to say to myself, ‘listen, you need to do something.’ And that’s why I started Harmony.

What do you expect your first product to look like and how are you going to expand from there?

We are working on a baby formula that uses human breast milk proteins. And we want to go straight to the customers, because they want a better formula right now. 

What do we need?  We need credible experts. Picture yourself: You are a mother struggling to feed your baby. The baby cries and has a rash. You can’t sleep and you have to do something. Then you meet a top scientist like Dr. Victoria Martin from Harvard, one of Harmony’s advisors. And Dr. Martin tells you that Harmony’s formula will solve your problem. You will listen to her.

In the future, we will expand to formulas for babies of different ages. We can do it way better through Harmony technology compared to the current technology. Breast milk composition, such as cholesterol, changes a lot throughout the years. At Harmony, we can mimic the changes that happen in breast milk. We make formulas that are way more closer to the baby’s needs than what we have right now.

How is Harmony different from others that parents might use as an option?

What’s really different is the product itself. 

Currently, parents of cow’s milk allergic babies have few options. One option is formulas made from plant proteins, such as soybean proteins, but that’s not really optimal. 

Other options include formulas made out of hydrolyzed cow’s milk. This type of hypoallergenic formula eliminates the allergenic parts of the protein, but that is the only good thing about it. It smells bad and tastes bad. It also causes many side effects, such as diarrhea. 

Plus, these formula alternatives are really expensive, over $40 per can. Imagine paying for up to 10 cans per month, for 2 years or longer! It’s a heavy burden to the family. But that’s what we have. 

This is where Harmony is different, as we can replace all these generic products with a human breast milk formula. We can also price our product much more affordably, around $15 per can. That’s why Harmony is a game-changer in the baby nutrition space. 

What do you find most rewarding in your entrepreneurial journey?

I love technology, but for me, entrepreneurship is about people—people you work with, babies that you helped, struggling parents. At this very early company stage, it’s hard with so many ups and downs. I’m lucky to have amazing people working with me on a daily basis. They helped me a lot. And when I make a product that people like, it is the most rewarding feeling.That’s why I’m still an entrepreneur after all these years.

Free to Feed: Empowering Breastfeeding Mothers

Free to Feed helps breastfeeding mothers with allergic babies. Breastfeeding babies can react to allergens passed through the mother’s milk, and Free to Feed provides solutions to pinpoint the allergenic source. The current “breast friend” model offers one-on-one consulting to help mothers identify the source in a couple months. Their forthcoming test kit is tailored to shorten this process further to 5 days.

See Free to Feed at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Free to Feed Co-founder & CEO Trillitye Paullin to gain insight into her technology and motivation in building her startup.

What was your key insight that led to the formation of the company?

My key insight is that I am my customer segment. I had two babies, both of whom had severe reactions to food allergens passed in my breast milk. I have gone through the immense pain that breastfeeding parents are going through today. Working towards a solution to that immense pain is what motivated me to build the company and find an answer for future breastfeeding mothers.

What’s your go-to-market strategy?

For Free to Feed, the wonderful part is that we are already helping parents in the long way. Our consulting service helps mothers go through elimination diets and reintroduction, while being a source of  support for them. Our go-to-market strategy is to give them a shorter way, selling them our test strips that will allow them to navigate this journey in a more straightforward manner. 

By going directly to consumers, we eliminate any hurdles for the parents to get our product in their hands. The opinions directly from the parents are impactful — They want to be able to order a test themselves and start their journey without having to go through hurdles to do so. As we expand, we will continue to lean into professional networks and get into nutrition offices.

How do you compare to other types of allergy testing?

Our competition, outside formula, is a fragmented market. Besides formulas for allergic babies, there are certain companies that offer testing capabilities for breast milk, but they are looking at things such as vitamins and alcohol content. These tests are very important for some families, but it’s a completely different ball of wax when you are dealing with allergic reactivity. The content of alcohol or vitamin C is not likely to cause your baby to stay up all night screaming. So, the issue is different. 

The other side of the market is the capability to send your breast milk for specific testing. There are definitely companies that will do testing for you, for things like the fat content of your breast milk. 

The problem with that is in the food allergy space, every time you eat something or breastfeed, the content of your breast milk changes. After you consume a protein, it’s going to spike in concentration in your breast a few hours after ingestion and then slowly go down from there, usually gone within 24h. As you eat your breakfast, around lunch time, the breakfast is now peaking in your breast milk. You need a real-time, at-home test that tells you how your breast milk changes over the day and also tells you immediately, as opposed to 5 days later. 

Breast milk is continuously changing and that’s why it’s so important to have point-of-care testing.

Dr. Trillitye Paullin, CEO of Free to Feed

In short, there are different testing abilities that are already offered to the parents for the breast milk, but none of which are looking at allergy specifically which is a very high pain point. 

In addition to that, it’s different because we are offering this test in a way that would allow parents to introduce those allergens that have implications for early optimal introduction. We can potentially make a massive impact on the number of people who are growing up to have IgE immune anaphylactic shock reactions toward foods like peanuts. 

What’s one thing that is making all your efforts worthwhile?

The most rewarding thing for me is one-on-one consultations. I get to meet struggling parents every single day and I’m honored to share a small part of their journeys. 

These consultations are really important to me because I need to continue to evolve with the problem. My youngest daughter just turned 3 and I’m slowly getting further and further away from the problem personally. But the problem will evolve, whether I’m breastfeeding or not. 

These consultations also remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing. On my hard days, being able to talk to a parent gives me my motivation. Because no matter how hard my day was, her days are way worse. That’s what keeps me doing what I’m doing. 

MicroTERRA: Feeding the World While Cleaning Water

MicroTERRA grows lemna with fish farmers to recycle pollution and feed the world. Lemna, also known as duck weed or water lentil, uses the nitrogen and phosphorus in the fish waste as fertilizer, preventing these nutrients from growing to toxic concentrations. It contains up to 40% protein and up to 25% pectin, an ingredient known in the food world for its great binding abilities. Using lemna, microTERRA creates nutritious, functional ingredients for the plant-based foods industry. The first microTERRA customers are the pet food producers, who require minimal processing of lemna meal to use it in pet food. They are also working with chefs to highlight their color- and taste-free ingredient in high-end plant-based foods.

See microTERRA at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with MicroTERRA Co-founder & CEO Marissa Cuevas to gain insight into her technology and motivation in building her startup.

What insight inspired you to start your company?

This idea of a circular economy, transforming residues into resources, is the key insight for me. 

I still remember one lecture when I heard that the next world crisis is going to be about water. It shocked me so much that I decided this is worth focusing my career on to solve it. 

70% of the world’s freshwater goes into agriculture. And it’s easy to create a solution to up-circuit or transform those residues into resources. If we focus on the majority, then we can make a difference. 

What is your go-to-market strategy?

I think this is an excellent question because this kind of questions and conversations will define if your business is alive or dead. 

For us, it’s about bringing a balance point between our vision and reality. On one hand, the more lemna we can produce and sell, the more water we can clean and save. So, we want markets that have high volumes. 

On the other hand, we have to go back to reality. We cannot produce very high volumes right now—so, we need to find a premium market. At the same time, we need to have the quality to sell to these premium markets. Because we are only a small startup, our products had to go through many iterations to reach that quality. 

To find where the sweet spot is, we had to do a bunch of empathy interviews to find out who our potential customers are and what they are most excited about. Then we try to create the architecture for those people, and then replicate. 

We are also conscious that our go-to-market strategy will change over the lifetime of the startup. For example, we were so sure we wanted to sell first to the premium pet food market. We thought it’s easy and doesn’t require premium quality ingredients (no one minds if there’s a bit of green coloring remaining in the lemna meal). But we have recently seen a lot of excitement from plant-based restaurants, because our new ingredient offers a playground for them to build their amazing creations. 

To be a successful startup, you have to have a very flexible mind. And you have to hear your customers; they know better. 

What’s the most rewarding part in your entrepreneurial journey?

Transforming an idea into something tangible is so fascinating, magical, and inspiring. 

When we look back at our initial plans, it’s exciting to realize how much of those plans we have executed. We are closer to being a real company; we are starting to sell products. It’s really, really exciting! Knowing that these products, this company  originated from a thought—that is fascinating.   

How do you differentiate from your competitors?

Our differentiating factor is our innovative business model.  We grow lemna in existing aquafarms, and this allows us to produce lemna in a sustainable, affordable, and scalable way. We don’t have a lot of capital expenditure, and we can add new farms very quickly. In fact, we have a waiting list of farmers who want to work with us. 

What does the future of food and agriculture look like in 5-10 years?

Food and agriculture tech must come together. In terms of food, we need to move toward sustainable solutions, not only for the planet but for our own health. In addition, we also need to make it affordable for everyone. 

In terms of agriculture tech, I believe that we are moving towards more regenerative agriculture systems. We need to look at ecosystems and how to enable their health while producing food.

Bucha Bio: Next Generation Biomaterial for Green Fashion

Bucha Bio grows their biomaterial with bacteria, free from animals or any plastic additives. Their biomaterial can be personalized in every different way: colors, textures, and other new traits. Their expected production cost at scale is lower and production speed is faster than any leather companies that are in the market. And they are providing samples to experiment with famous shoe and automobile companies. 

See Bucha Bio at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Bucha Bio Founder & CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

What inspired you to build Bucha Bio?

I’m a vegan as well as a fashion lover. I understand that there is a big sustainability market. As soon as I had a fun experience experimenting with Bucha online, I realized it’s not just an experiment but this could be built into an industry. I saw the potential there, so I started pitching it to everyone who would listen to me. 

What products can we expect to see made with Bucha Bio materials?

Our first product was a pillow, and it was an easy one for our first choice. It’s an interior design product. It doesn’t have to stand up against too much rough and tumble. That was using our first iteration of material.

Now, with our current product, we can stand up to a lot of rough and tumble. The durability of our product has increased exponentially with the application of 100% plant-based polymers that we developed during the IndieBio program. We are now looking for a contract to use this material to create a line of small items such as watch bands, jewelry, and footwear. 

One aspect I want to highlight is the versatility of our material. Because of its durability, flexibility, and ability to take on natural dyes, we can use it for all sorts of applications. Wissam Al-Madhon from Frecustoms requested biomaterials to refit an Air Jordan sneaker (not affiliated with Nike). We also made a commercial with a designer top made from our biomaterial as a concept that biomaterial can be super trendy, super cool. That’s definitely where we want to keep on being, on trend with our genZ target market. As we know, genZ loves sneakers, so that’s where we want to go next.

As for the business model, generally, we don’t sell products directly but work with partners. We work with brands to prototype our products and then bring our products to the market and co-brand those together. We want that brand parallelism, that we are on the same level. We are incorporating this really edgy, really crazy material. That gets everyone’s attention. It’s good for both brands. That’s the goal. 

As we scale up, in the long term, we will go to the automobile industry and other items you’d like to see with larger contracts. After that, we bring the price down to compete with animal, or even plastic, leather at scale. That will be the end game. 

What’s the most rewarding thing in your entrepreneurial journey?

I always want to be at the cutting-edge of technology. I want to do things that are really exciting—and I’m doing that today. It’s really awesome. This week, I’m in the garment district, downtown; I’m directing a fashion show at SOHO; I’m doing wet lab research. It doesn’t get better than this! This is a lot of fun, and I’m living in the dream everyday.

What advantages do you have against your competitors?

We have many competitive advantages. Firstly, Bucha Bio is able to grow sheets of biomaterials anywhere and without bioreactors; this is a huge advantage. 

Secondly, using industrial waste as a feedstock for our bacteria also creates an opportunity. This enables us to compete our price with not only animal leather but also plastic leather at scale. 

Lastly, using plant-based biopolymers with cellulosic chemistry delivers performance way beyond what’s currently available on the market, while remaining green. We have the performance and the sustainability, without compromising on either.

What does the future of your industry look like?

It’s our belief that industries like fashion, interior design, and automotive will evolve beyond leather-based products in the next 25 years. We want businesses to understand and embrace this more sustainable model.

Beemunity: Protecting Our Pollinators

Beemmunity protects bees from the effects of both lethal and sublethal exposure to pesticides. Their ingestible microsponge technology absorbs all pesticides and allows them to be safely expelled without harm. Beekeepers can simply add this product to their current bee feeding processes to detoxify their bees. This prevents bees from the direct toxic effects of pesticides, and also prevents the bees from becoming immunosuppressed due to constant low-level pesticide exposure. Beemmunity protection leads to healthier bees, strengthening both crop pollination and honey production.

Watch Beemmunity at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Beemmunity Co-founder & CEO James Webb to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

What was your inspiration for saving the bees?

I have always been interested in how insects contribute to our natural world and their importance in our food production. And I also get frustrated that the bees are dying. Although people keep on researching that, an effective solution is lacking. 

I luckily found myself in a lab which allows me to explore ideas using functional and useful biomaterials. I’m glad that I could make something happen in that space. 

How do you decide who your first customers are going to be in preparing your technology as a product?

We looked at what is the earliest stage we can put a product out there with the data supporting the functionality of the product. Right now, we are carrying out these colony scale trials and gathering data from that. And the commercial beekeepers are quite sensitive because their hives are their livelihoods. So, we are looking at the consumer market initially. 

Hopefully we can launch some consumer products this year which we are rapidly designing at the moment. And then, early next year, we hope we will gather enough data so that we can put together a good strong package for beekeepers. 

Overall, we got a lot of interest from backyard beekeepers. And we hope that the commercial beekeepers, the large scale beekeepers, can adapt in the pollination season next year; February 2022. 

How do you differentiate from your competitors?

Unlike our competitors, Beemmunity has a naturally-derived solution. Our approach is different from others who attempt to either brace the bee’s physiology for pesticide exposure, or simply deal with the inevitable impacts of exposure. 

Beemmunity directly and specifically detoxifies pesticides, thereby eradicating the issue. It means our approach is far more effective in preventing bee mortality and sublethal effects.

What does the future of your industry look like in 5-10 years?

In the future, we will successfully protect the critical pollinators from pesticides in areas like agriculture when pesticide application is absolutely necessary. 

I also hope technologies, such as this, can reveal how nature can thrive when pesticides are removed from the equation. I hope there will be a reform around pesticide application.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?

The most rewarding thing definitely is to bring people together and create something cooperatively. It’s amazing what we can achieve together. 

When you bring together people who don’t really know each other, you think goodness what is this going to come to. And then two months down the line, when you look back, you see that you have actually achieved quite a lot. 

Read coverage of Beemmunity’s accomplishments, including more on their technology, here.

Nyoka Design Labs: Bioluminescence Lights the World

Nyoka Design Labs produces biodegradable light wands with bioluminescence to replace toxic chemical glow sticks. Their cell-free, enzyme-based light wands are shelf stable and meet industry standards for brightness and duration. They are now selling these light wands for commercial uses, such as events and festivals, with plans to expand into industrial uses such as marine fishing and search-and-rescue operations.  Nyoka’s mission is to replace the one billion toxic, single-use glow sticks thrown away every year.

Watch Nyoka Design Labs at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Nyoka Design Labs Co-founder & CEO Paige Whitehead to gain insight into her technology and motivation in building her startup.

What’s wrong with current glow sticks?

Current glow sticks are made of dangerous chemicals: these chemicals cause mutations or cell death if they are exposed to living organisms. To keep the chemicals from being exposed to people, manufacturers use the strongest petrochemical-derived plastics as the glow stick casing—this means these glow sticks will be with us for hundreds of years.

What inspired you to start your company?

There are two parts of the story. In the first part, I went to see bioluminescence in the wild. It’s incredible when I saw it for the first time. It has always captured my imagination ever since. Bioluminescence is the reason why I went into microbiology. 

The second part of my inspiration came after my first music festival. I had the best time in my entire life, but when I was walking out of the festival grounds, I saw all this garbage. The contrast was too jarring to comprehend. I saw all these glow sticks on the ground. At that moment, I thought I should really do something with bioluminescence and glow sticks. 

I didn’t think that idea would change my life, but it was something that kept coming back into my mind. I started working on it by emailing companies and professors that are experts in the field to get help. Eventually, it turned into a company. 

It was a long process but it started from keeping my eye open for things that I would be passionate to work on. 

How did you decide which market to focus on first? 

Based on our technology development, we can sell right now to the event and festival industry to provide people the most benefits out of using the light wand.

A number of things made the events industry an easy choice. There are tons of people in this industry that really care about sustainability and are looking for interesting new technologies to try. And there are already festivals that have started to ban glow sticks. Plus, it’s also a faster turnaround compared to selling to the government. 

It also happens to be super fun; people get excited about festivals! Since I’m young enough to enjoy festivals myself, it’s super fun to work on festivals. And our team also gets excited. 

As we make sales and work with current clients, we are also increasing our internal capacity to be able to work with really huge clients. Instead of a pack of 10 or 100, we want to fulfill orders for  a pack of 100,000. As we scale up, we are looking at how we can manage expectations and relationships at the early stage. It’s not an easy choice but we need to develop something that follows every stage of our growth.

What’s the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?

Every now and then, I get an email from either a student or someone who found out about our work. And they tell me that they are going into microbiology or environmental studies because they have been inspired by the work I have done. That fills me with hope. It makes me realize that what we are doing has effects far beyond ourselves. We are showing people that sustainability can go somewhere. 

I remember all the companies I looked up to as role models. Now it’s amazing to see we are becoming that for people who are following behind us. It’s amazing to see that the world never stops—it passes on to people who are coming up.

What is your major differentiating factor from your competitors?

We focus on cell-free bioluminescent systems, the “bioluminescence without the fluff.” Our product is based entirely on non-toxic light-generating systems and biodegradable polymers.

Every product decision is made by asking ourselves: “is this a meaningful sustainable leap forwards?” That differentiates us from other bioluminescence companies developing living systems which require life-sustaining infrastructure to maintain light output. 

What does the future of your industry look like in 5-10 year?

Single-use plastics will be banned and replaced with biodegradable, regenerative materials. And, of course, all glow sticks will be non-toxic and compostable. It’s just a matter of time until sustainability and circularity become everyone’s top priorities. 

Although many governments are supporting industry shifts with decisive bans, it’s still going to be a fight. Here in Canada, the government just designated plastic as a toxic item, but large plastics companies are already getting ready to sue! 

The industry has a lot to answer for, but can also make the most impactful changes, from the top of the supply chain all the way through to waste management. Imagine if every single throwaway item was built to be biodegraded, or even healing for our environment! It’s a change worth fighting for.

BrickBuilt Therapeutics: the First Oral Microbiome Therapeutics

BrickBuilt Therapeutics is the first company targeting the microbiome via live biotherapeutic products to treat oral diseases. They are replacing conventional therapies—surgery or broad spectrum antibiotics—with bacterial strains isolated and formulated specifically to treat oral diseases. BrickBuilt’s first preclinical candidate microbial drug targets periodontitis, or gum disease. This targeted treatment will not only create a more effective way to eliminate gum disease, but also has the possibility of reducing other related severe conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and preterm birth.

Watch BrickBuilt at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with BrickBuilt Co-founder & CEO Brian Klein to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

Why did you start BrickBuilt?

I have been in the oral microbiome space for almost 15 years, during which I saw several gut microbiome companies launch. Then the microbiome therapeutics industry started to move to the skin. But the mouth is actually the easiest to access, and one of the places in the body with the most disease prevalence. There was no company trying to make therapeutics for oral diseases, and this drove me crazy. 

We need someone to push this forward and no one else was doing it. Importantly, not a current gut or skin focused company can or is going to treat oral diseases; they lack the expertises, microbes, drives and fundings to do so. Additionally, the big players in the probiotics or nutriceutical space don’t have the correct microbes to enter the field either. This is why BrickBuilt is perfectly placed to act: we’re dedicated to oral health and we have the expertise as well as the niche-specific microbes to get the job done.

How did you develop your go-to-market strategy?

Having the microbial library and being able to go on the clinical side as well as partner with people on the consumer side is really important to me. When you look at companies developing microbiome drugs, they frequently mention their enormous libraries and proprietary sequencing data. This is great because microbial libraries and sequencing data are important as you need those things to make drugs. 

However,  if you have a library of 50 different Clostridium scindens, why let 49 sit idle in a freezer because you only picked 1 to go to the clinic with? Why would you not use a different one for potentially an over-the-counter product or developing an enzyme therapy with a partner? That’s why we want to have a useful library and use it both on the clinical side and through partnerships for more consumer and over-the-counter applications, not directly from us but via partners.

We decided to focus first on the clinical route to provide better therapeutics. In the dental space, and for gum disease specifically, a patient could have a surgery, take antibiotics, or both. It’s generally not a good idea for something like gum disease to be treated with a broad spectrum antimicrobial. And surgery alone will not rid the patient of the microbes causing the gum disease in the first place. So, we want to fill that space. 

To do so, we have to go through clinical trials to prove it is safe and efficacious. We have made amazing strides during the IndieBio program toward this. First, we sequenced and closed the genome of our lead microbial candidate, which tells us what the strain is and what it could do. Second, we’ve completed in silico and in vitro antimicrobial resistance profiling. We’ve learned that our lead strain is susceptible to most common antibiotics, an important safety requirement. Lastly, we have begun sourcing healthy donors from around the world and isolating microbes from their saliva to derive other beneficial strains for use in therapeutics. 

What do you think is your key differentiator comparing to others that are in that space?

This is my favorite part because there are no other microbial therapeutics companies focused on the mouth. That’s the first differentiator.

Additionally, even though our team is small, we have a ridiculous amount of experience working with these anaerobic and microaerophilic microbes in the oral niche, an understanding of how you isolate and screen for these microbes, and how to invade microbial communities. People need to realize that “microbiome” as a term is not that old. So, we have been in it from the relative beginning. 

Dr. Esther Miller, our first scientist, has been working on different food-related microbiomes and how to invade those systems. That’s a relatively novel thing: how can I get a good bug into a disease system and track that? 

The understanding of the anaerobic and microaerophilic side of things is extremely important and not very common. If you go to pharma ‘A’ or ‘B’ and say, “Hey! How many anaerobic chambers do you have? Can you create high-throughput libraries and screen them?”—you’re likely to get a blank stare equating to a ‘no.’ It’s a highly trained skill and there just aren’t many people who specialize in it. 

What is the most rewarding thing about your entrepreneurship?

The most rewarding thing has been bringing the initial team together. Esther, who is a highly qualified scientist, came onboard because she believes the work to be both interesting and impactful for the world. 

Our advisor, Dr. Ian Needleman, the former head of British Perio, was driven to join us because of the importance for patients. In fact, he was specifically motivated because we are not just going to try another antibiotic, but instead finding a truly novel solution. 

Being able to move from a concept to potential patient impact, and then pulling people together around the idea, is one of the super rewarding things about entrepreneurship. 

How do you predict that oral health will change in the next 10 years? 

I’m really happy to see phase II and phase III clinical trials from a lot of gut and skin microbiome therapeutics companies coming forward. I think we may see approved treatments for C. difficile infections within the next two years. 

When it comes to oral health and oral medical devices, I think that we are at this amazing time where within 5 to 10 years, I envision dental health being more fully developed and connected to general healthcare. Especially now that we know these oral diseases, like gum disease, have broad reaching systemic effects, like preterm birth, type II diabetes, and Alzheimers. And the same will go for cavities and oral cancer. 

As we are developing our drugs, the dental and medical establishments will start to say, “okay, you can prescribe these things for oral diseases.” And people will acknowledge that the oral diseases will affect the outcome of the rest of the whole body problems. Treating oral diseases is treating half of the world population with acute oral diseases as well as preventing diseases among the world’s entire population. Because when you take all oral diseases combined with diseases like arthritis and diabetes, you end up covering almost everyone on the planet.

Sequential Skin: the First Truly Personalized Skin Care

Sequential Skin uses their unique at-home test to provide the world’s first truly personalized skin care. Their test considers both the human genetics and the skin microbiome to generate a report tailored to the individual. Years of research have indicated that the skin microbiome, and specifically the diversity (how many different types of microorganisms), are correlated with skin health, and further that microbiome diversity is influenced by a number of genetic and environmental factors

After using the Sequential Skin test, customers receive a personalized skin care regimen, including a face mask containing all the ingredients necessary for personalized optimal skin health.

Watch Sequential Skin at IndieBio New York Class Two Demo Day

We spoke with Sequential Skin CEO Oliver Worsley to gain insight into his technology and motivation in building his startup.

How did you recognize a need for Sequential Skin’s technology?

One of our key insights was recognizing that most skin tests are clinical, so they require a swab or saliva test. We want to revolutionize that. We bring a patch that is simple to use and isn’t associated with a hospital or clinic to customers, to enable that information in a really simple way.  

Our other insight was due to being based in Singapore, the heart of Asia which is very multicultural, and seeing there is a hugely underrepresented group of people around the world that don’t have the important health information about their genetics and skin microbiome. Because of the decreasing costs of sequencing, we are finally at a point where we can collect this information in a cost-effective way, using technology to improve skin health for anyone.

How did you develop your go-to-market strategy?

Sequential Skin has so far used a B2B model, where we help companies validate their new skincare products, improving skin microbiome claims. Speaking at conferences has initiated connections with many companies in this space and showcased what we are doing. They then approached us to ask us to test the effects of their products on the skin microbiome. 

Though B2B isn’t the entire vision of sequential skin, it’s been really useful for us to use the kit with the individuals working with the companies to test their products. It’s been a good way to both bring revenue and refine the technology. We are lucky to have that.

What do you think is the key differentiator comparing to others that are in that space

There is no other company looking at both human genetics and the skin microbiome for the purposes of skin care or skin health. That alone makes Sequential Skin standout from others in this space. The expertise of our team, having 3 Ph.D. scientists in genetics and the microbiome, has been really key for us as well. 

We have also been very lucky in terms of timing: the skincare industry is shifting to more personalized care, and we are hoping to ride that wave to help these customers in that space. 

What have you found most rewarding about entrepreneurship?

During the pandemic, we had a lot of time. We couldn’t go into the lab—that forced us to be at home, sharing these reports with friends and family and ensuring the science we are communicating is useful for consumers. We put a lot of attention on customer experience, and it’s been really rewarding.

Above all though, it’s most rewarding when customers come back and say, “I have been using this product. It’s really amazing and I really feel the difference in the quality of my skin. This really changes things.” I had a customer reach out the other day saying, “the products you gave me, I am still using them.” This is a year later! What’s most rewarding is to see the science being used for the intended translation and the whole process working really nicely. 

How do you predict that skin health will change in the next 10 years? How will this affect the broader medical field?

We talk about this a lot within the Sequential Skin team. Did you know 70% of consultation can be done in a telemedicine way? And it’s estimated that after this pandemic, 30% of these consultations will take place in some sort of tele-arena. We see that being accelerated in 10 years, to the point where everything can be done at home. 

Imagine: you have a kit that arrived. You perform the test and then your doctor is on the call with you. Everything is prescribed and treated through that tele-system. In this future, you wouldn’t have to go and wait in long waiting queues to see a doctor, and you don’t have the risk of being exposed to something else in the clinic or the hospital. I think everything will be completely remote. So, we are building this at-home test and refining the process to make it as simple as possible. I think that is here to stay. 

Microbiomes are generally the forgotten organ. But in the future, everything is going to be targeted around the microbiome, whether it’s to treat neurological or skin conditions; instead of using generic and often systemic drugs, the microbiome will be the focus of targeted therapeutics.