Jun 23, 2016
By Alex Kopelyan
Founder Stories: an Interview with Maria from SyntheX Labs
Founder Stories: an Interview with Maria from SyntheX Labs

Maria Soloveychik is the CEO and co-founder of SyntheX Labs, a biotech company developing peptide therapeutics for cancer and other rare diseases.

A: Tell me about your background, how did you get interested in the biotech space?

M: So it started in 8th when I decided I wanted to do biology so I could clone endangered species and play with water bears. Later on, as an undergrad, I realized how much I loved experimental design and research so getting a PhD was a no-brainer. After getting exposed to many different fields, from biochemistry to cell biology to microscopy, I decided on Cellular Metabolism since it’s vital in so many life processes. Going to University of Toronto allowed me to be in a world class molecular genetics department and surrounded by cutting edge research, while also being able to push my own projects forward.

A: What problem are you working to solve with your company, SyntheX?

M: We’re designing a platform for drug discovery to target previously undruggable targets for cancer and other rare diseases. There are over 650,000 protein-protein interactions that we know of in human cells, and there is only one drug that has been approved that can break one of these interactions. If our platform works it opens up this enormous space of possibility to treat previously incurable diseases.

A: It sounds like you have really ambitious goals for SyntheX, what type of progress have you been able to make towards them so far?

M: We came into IndieBio with an idea for a drug discovery platform and a list of targets. In the three months since then we’ve built out the platform, created compounds, and tested them in clinical models. We started with a compound to target incurable liver cancer, Intrahepatic Cholangiocarcinoma (ICC), and Castration Resistant Prostate Cancer (CRPC). By targeting a specific pathway they both rely on we have seen very selective and potent killing of the ICC and CRPC cells that we’re now working to test in animal models.

A: How is your team uniquely able to tackle this challenge? What’s the expertise?

M: Charlie, our CSO, and I have different, but complementing skillsets that give us a unified view of drug design. Together we have decades of experience in cancer biology, structural biology, and genetic engineering that are all invaluable. Realizing how tough this industry is, we’ve worked really hard to get great advisors who have taken drugs through the FDA for indications we’re targeting. Their experience has been incredibly useful in guiding us.

A: If you could only pick one thing to validate your reason for forming a startup, what would it be? In other words, what would be the single biggest indicator to you that you are doing the right thing?

M: For the company, the ultimate validation by far is finding ways to cure previously incurable diseases. Personally, this feels very natural to me since it provides such a level of control of your own work and results. In academia, we make these type of discoveries frequently, but it’s so rare that they’re applied and brought to the world.

A: So speaking of academia, any big lessons learned transitioning from there to startup entrepreneurship?

M: So many actually. The biggest was transitioning to thinking about the economics behind science and funding from private sources instead of grants. Raising funds and planning milestone achievement has been a new challenge that we’re learning more about every day. Personally, I’ve gone from a purely scientific role into a business role where I have to communicate the science in a way that’s accessible to non-experts.

AK: How do you think success can change your industry?

M: I think it opens the door to a lot more young startups with outside the box ideas to go out and make them a reality. Big pharma can seem like an intimidating black box from the outside and we want other grad students and postdocs to be able to go out and create new innovative companies.

A: What are the big goals and milestones you’re looking to hit in the short term? Long term?

M: In the short term, we’re looking to move our compounds into development and secure funding to hire more talent to round out our team. Long term, it’s about establishing strategic partnerships to move into the clinic quickly and see patients benefiting from the treatments we’re developing.

You can reach Maria at msoloveychik@synthexlabs.com or twitter — mso_nightingale

Are you a scientist looking to build the next generation of biotech companies? Apply to IndieBio San Francisco