One of Robert Langer's grad students made a serendipitous discovery in the lab, and now he's out to prove that a new and more efficient method for getting molecules into cells could have a big impact on the way drugs are made, starting in the hot immuno-oncology field
CEO: Armon Sharei
Based: Cambridge, MA
Clinical focus: Cellular engineering
The scoop: Getting molecules into cells has occupied drug developers for decades. SQZ Biotech believes it's found a new, very efficient way to do it. And it's set up shop with a mere $5 million in Series A cash from some well-known startup masters to go to work in getting this new technology into the clinic ASAP.
What makes SQZ Biotech Fierce: This is not a story about a new technology which well-heeled venture groups are throwing money at in hopes of getting an early start toward groundbreaking drug research. This is one startup that may not need a lot of investment cash in order to make a splash with groundbreaking technology.
SQZ, like a number of biotechs before it, was started with technology that originated with a student in Robert Langer's MIT lab, along with the instrumental participation of MIT's Klavs Jensen. And after trying something that failed, using microfluidics to prep a cell for injecting molecules into it, the process instead revealed that squeezing the cells created a porous surface for the molecules to slip inside.
Eureka, as the Greeks say.
Langer's biotech startups like to get going with grant money followed by a modest investment of venture cash topped up with partnership contributions from biopharma collaborators. Check, check and check. It's a great model for retaining equity, which is something that academics frequently don't do well.
In this case, the student in question--Armon Sharei--is now a newly minted biotech exec. And he has some of the best mentors you can find in the Cambridge hub.
Aside from his scientific godfathers, Pfizer ($PFE) vet Amy Schulman has combined her role as a partner at Polaris with her corporate history in Big Pharma to sit in as executive chairman.
The company is still playing things low-key, but they say that partners have already appeared to get started in immuno-oncology, the hottest field of the year, along with more potential in autoimmune and infectious diseases. It's the kind of scalable tech platform that can be expanded to fit a lot of potential programs. And if this company nails down clear proof-of-concept data that this supersimple idea has broad applicability, look for big things to come.
In the meantime, Langer tells FierceBiotech, Big Pharma has come around to the idea "surprisingly quickly. A number of very large companies who are household names have already approached us about really significant collaborations and deals."
The biotech and its mentors are clearly pleased that Scientific American has already ranked this as one of the top new ideas in circulation. And they should be. It's just the sort of spotlight that helps breed new collaborators.
Investors: Polaris Partners, 20/20 Healthcare Partners and unnamed investors.
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