Sep 8, 2023
By Sierra Brooks
Breaking Cancer’s Immune Defenses from the Inside Out, a Conversation with Karma Biotechnologies

We talked with three key team members of Los Angeles-based Karma Biotech – Andrew Gray, Co-Founder and CEO, Alan Johnson, Co-Founder and COO, and Joe Turner, CFO and CBO — in the basement of IndieBio last week after their company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by their peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

The Karma founders have been friends for over twice as long as the average marriage in the US

Andrew and Alan have had the longest relationship with IndieBio of any co-founders in the batch – dating all the way back to their participation in IndieBio SF Batch 2 as Vali Nanomedical! Their non-professional relationship actually started even earlier – the two met 17 years ago playing rugby and have been close friends ever since. Their experience with Vali taught them that improving the delivery of small molecule drugs wouldn’t cure cancer – but engineering the immune system to eliminate cancer itself might. While the technology to enable this simply didn’t exist at the time, they knew they had the core skills and knowledge to be able to create it. So they did what anyone in need of inspiration might do – headed to their favorite brewery to discuss over a pint.

[Andrew]: “We went to the brewery with a tiny notepad and ended up sketching out the original idea for our core macrophage engineering technology – I still have that notepad to this day. We basically have a fancy version of that same cartoon sketch in our patent that just got issued.”

[Sierra]: That’s amazing how your vision came together so quickly! Was it all smooth sailing from there?

[Alan]: “Not even close, but we were eventually able to scrape together $150K and access to a warehouse in LA with a full tissue culture lab! That foundation and invaluable equipment access enabled us to get to our first funding round.”

[Mohan]: Joe and Mari, how did you guys enter the picture?

[Joe]: “I connected with Andrew when I was working at Blackstone and we just hit it off right away. I started informally advising him on the business aspects but my other job kept me from fully engaging. That’s when I knew that this company had something special and my only option was to dive in.”

[Andrew]: “There’s another critical member of the team – Xazmin, our Associate Director of Molecular Biology. She couldn’t make it today, but if she were here she would chime in to tell you how her and I hit it off over our shared love of Sci-Fi when we met in early 2020. Her favorite tv series, Expanse, is based on my favorite book! I’m sure that’s how I convinced her to leave academia to join the team…

[Alan]: Xazmin plays a crucial role at the interface of the experimental and the business teams. Last week we got some unexpected, disheartening data but she refused to take the result at face value. She worked tirelessly and discovered an error in the analysis that was hiding our positive results!

Karma is one of the few companies lucky enough to go through IndieBio twice

All IndieBio SF batches were in person, with members of every company relocating to San Francisco for six months. Until the Covid-19 outbreak. It forced the IndieBio team to adapt and create a virtual batch model, which has evolved into an ongoing hybrid mode based on team member ability to travel. 

[Andrew]: “A lot has changed since those early days – now that IndieBio runs a hybrid model for the batch it opens up opportunities for companies based all over the world to participate. I now have kids; I wouldn’t have been able to participate in this batch without that change.”

[Alan]: “It was crazy being part of an early batch back when the office was still under construction. We had to pivot our experimental planning constantly. Although that part still stays the same – one of the joys of creating a startup!”

Andrew’s and Alan’s rugby injuries will never heal…but that didn’t stop the Karma team from being a Killer this week

[Joe]: ‘This week was really crucial for us. We actually had three key achievements that set us apart: we were able to make significant experimental progress to meet a major milestone in one of our pharma collaborations; we made progress in obtaining a Key Opinion Leader in the oncology space to advise Karma going forward; and we found a new research tool partner that will enable us obtain key mechanistic data by Demo Day!”

[Mohan]: Yeah, last week was impressive. It’s been amazing to see you guys trying to crush it each week.

[Andrew]: “A few weeks back it felt like we had hit an LA traffic jam and stalled our progress a bit. This week we were able to break through it on multiple fronts and really keep our team and company momentum going. I live my life by the Icelandic motto ‘Þetta reddast – everything will work out in the end,’ and we were really able to demonstrate that this week.”

Through our short conversation, it was extremely clear how resilient the Karma team is in their pursuit towards their central mission: Clearing hard-to-treat tumors by reprogramming the immune system and the tumor microenvironment in vivo with unprecedented efficiency. We can’t wait to see how the team continues to progress towards Demo Day. 

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!