June 2, 2021
Born in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Nabiha Sakalyen grew up in Germany and went to high school in Sri Lanka. Through her exposure to a variety of cultures, ideas and experiences, she developed a sense of deep curiosity for the world, and ultimately studied physics. Dr. Sakalyen was named one of 35 innovators under 35 by MIT Tech Review, as well as by Forbes 30 under 30 healthcare list.
She sat down for a fireside chat with Jennifer Griffin, MLSC Vice President, Industry Strategy and Investments, about her journey from PhD student to co-founding Cellino Biotech, which recently raised a $16 million seed round led by The Engine and Khosla Ventures. The interivew, a Hub Cures event in the lead-up to MALSI+ 2021, was edited for brevity and clarity. You can watch the video here or below.
Jennifer Griffin (JG): Tell me about your company and how you got involved in Cellino. How did you take a technology out of an academic setting, and make a go at it? How did you know when the time was right to spin out Cellino?
Nabiha Sakalyen (NS): I founded Cellino during the end of my PhD at Harvard. I was in the physics program, and I was committed to finish in five years. I wanted to do a postdoc and get an industry job afterwards. I was on this very tight timeline that I'd set for myself.
I had committed to living at the interface of physics and biology for my PhD because I really felt that there were many important problems that could be solved in biology to enable further innovation in biomedicine and bioengineering, using tools and approaches from physics. I did my PhD in a laser physics and nanotechnology group and was developing applications for bio-photonics. When I started the PhD, I thought, okay, I'll get to some prototyping stage, and then I'll hand off my PhD topic to another graduate student, and they'll do the fun stuff, which is working with cells, because things just take forever. But the last year of my PhD everything started to work very quickly.
I very much believe in riding the momentum when opportunities are presenting themselves. So as the technology started working in the lab, I started asking the question: Is this useful to biologists? I had the chance to work with George Church, Derek Rossi, David Skadden, just incredible biologists, and institutions like Harvard Medical School. They all looked at the technology and were excited to the point where they said, “Yeah, you need to start a company! This could change biology.”
When you hear that type of phrase from one of the leaders in biology…I couldn't just ignore it. So that was a pivotal moment.
For me, the timing was about wrapping up my PhD. Obviously, there's a transition phase where you have to set up your company. Beyond that, I really felt that the technology would benefit from being outside of academia because then you're forced to work towards finding product market fit and figuring out what is the technology useful for and really getting out of the inventor bias. It's very important to leave the ivory tower and go talk to and engage deeply with real world customers and partners.
So, the timing was all very fast. I did over 100 customer interviews in the span of three months, and then met The Engine, which is a venture fund spun out of MIT, around September of that year. They wrote our first check. I'm very grateful that I was supported in that pathway, but I always made sure that I was making all the right connections, I was in the right place at the right time asking the right questions.
JG: Product fit is such an important concept. There's a fine line between knowing and loving your products, but also being open to new information that might force you to think about it differently. Can you tell us did that ever happen to you and your company? And how did you respond?
NS: Absolutely. This is what happens in all startups, and if it's not happening, I think I would be worried, because it means the iteration cycles aren't happening quickly enough with developing a product, testing it with potential users, and coming back reiterating. To me it is maybe one of the most fun parts of being an entrepreneur, because you really can see the product definition evolving very quickly because you're getting the right endpoint, and you're moving in the right direction.
I'll share one story. The laser editing technology that I invented through my PhD is a technology to engineer cells by delivering payloads into the cell such as CRISPR/CAS9 for gene editing applications. It’s very powerful, very useful, very interesting. Everybody was excited about that potential. When the company started, we were building out that platform capability and I went to meet one of my mentors Bastiano Sanna, who was the CEO of Semma Therapeutics at the time, which has now been acquired by Vertex. I'm striking my data and we're talking, and he said “Nabiha, this is great. But the problem we're dealing with is removing low quality cells in our cell therapy products. Can you do that with your technology?”
I said, “Yes, of course we can. But that's easy, right?” Because I'm an inventor and innovator, I want to do hard things.
And he responded, “I'm telling you, that's really what we need right now.”
I went back, looked at all of my customer discovery notes, and started to see a pattern of multiple experts talking about the problem of having unwanted cells in their cell therapy products, and how to resolve that. And now, that's a lot of what we do. Now, we apply AI guided laser editing to produce really high-quality stem cells for autologous cell therapies. I would never in a million years, have imagined that Cellino would be commercializing this as a platform capability today, but that's what you get from being in close contact with the right experts and listening very carefully and paying attention and not just dismissing things because you've thought differently about it. It was definitely a very important part of my journey, and it's constantly evolving.
My takeaways: I'm always keeping an open mind to what others are telling me and trying to back that up with data to see where we should focus our platform efforts. We have to say no to a lot of things. The laser editing with gene editing, the original work that I did for my PhD has been put on pause. As an inventor, I miss that work. But as a business person, we have to build the most valuable products right now.
JG: You have a particularly multidisciplinary team and an approach to your technology. And that's becoming more common and it also can present challenges. Can you speak to some of your experience of leading a convergence, multidisciplinary team?
NS: I love the word convergence. Cellino does really live at the intersection of machine learning, laser physics, and stem cell biology--and a lot of different biological tools as well. It's really powerful, because the types of innovations that my team is creating and producing are unlike anything you would see across individual disciplines. There’s this multi-disciplinarity that flows through our entire company, our entire IP strategy, our commercialization strategy, and all the different products we're working on.
My priority has always been--in order to have successful, professional working relationships—to communicate very well. I make sure that I'm listening. I make sure that I'm explaining things in a way that's that being processed by my colleagues and my collaborators, and make sure that we're doing that in all directions.
We spend a lot of time working on our communication skills at Cellino. In fact, we have a professional leadership and communication coach in house, as my chief of staff, who works with the team, every day, every hour per day, to make sure we're doing that really well. By making communication a core pillar of our company and a core value, I think we've done the best we could, and we're going to keep working on it because it’s an ongoing process. We also, just today started rolling out our first 360 performance reviews. The management team is going first. I really believe in working on our skills to be the best versions of ourselves, for the company. I think it makes us a stronger company.
JG: Can you speak a little bit about how being in Massachusetts has helped you develop this disruptive technology and build a team like yours that's really, truly cross disciplinary?
NS: I can tell you, from the bottom of my heart, I would not have been an entrepreneur, if I wasn't in Massachusetts for my PhD. That is a fact. There are just tremendous resources all around. I graduated in May, and that summer, I did MassChallenge, which was amazing. And the fall, I did MassCONNECT.
But by that time, I already had met my first investors; I built my founding team. We secured lab space. I had this incredible network of mentors and advisors in Kendall Square. Cambridge is the biotech capital of the world. There's no other way to describe it. You really feel that electric energy.
Sometimes I look back and feel very much like an accidental entrepreneur. Massachusetts, the Boston community, and the resources in the biotech community, the University communities, there’s just incredible talent. I guess the takeaway is, if you want to do a startup in biotech, this is the best place in the world. But you have to want it. You have to work hard.
Also, there's incredible talent [in Massachusetts], very much on par with Silicon Valley. I really cannot sing enough praises of Massachusetts and really give, this environment ecosystem all the credit it truly deserves for supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs like myself.
JG: As you've shared with me, like many women, people of color, you were one of the few people who looked like you in many classrooms, labs and now boardrooms. Your personal story and your lived experience have no doubt contributed to your success. Can you talk about how you overcame these obstacles to get to where you are today?
NS: I've always been different. I was the six or seven year old girl obsessed with space and obsessed with my astronomy books and with Harry Potter. I had a very wonderful mom who just supported everything I was doing. I think having that self-awareness and just feeling that security at home was absolutely critical for everything else I did later on in my career.
Physics is usually 20 percent women at the undergrad level or the PhD level. I definitely think it's important to remember every time that I'm in a position like I am right now, as a CEO of a company, that it's a great opportunity to change stereotypes and change how people think about implicit bias.
Having the right mindset, when you're dealing with any situation that might feel strange or out of place, it's really about reminding yourself that you actually deserve to be here. You’ve worked hard.
One of the things I think about a lot is how we increase representation in our communities, across all industry sectors. I think leadership should truly reflect society so that the best solutions and products can be developed, and in biotech, that's 100 percent true. I also believe a lot in bottom-up approaches. The leadership and education coach on our team is doing a fantastic job of helping the team communicate effectively across all disciplines, but also helping develop personalized leadership programs for all the scientists on my team. I think that's how we change the face of the industry.
I also launched an education program for high school and middle school students called “I'm a Scientist,” which gives me a lot of joy. The vision there is to share stories of scientists like myself, who don't fit into any particular mold or image. We want to present these interesting personalities to draw students into STEM through storytelling. It's now live in all 50 states and serving about 20,000 to 50,000 students annually.
I look at the status quo of imbalance and inequity and that's motivation for me and everybody else to roll up our sleeves and get to work to change things. Because as we change things, that's how we open up new medicines for patients, or bring new technologies to fight climate change, or bring new sources of energy to the world. So I guess I'm a very determined optimist and think we all should support one another to cultivate that level of optimism, because we all have to change the status quo together.
JG: I think the audience is probably really dying to know what your advice would be if you had to rewind, and think about things that you wish you knew, before you dove into the world of entrepreneurship. What are a few things that you think would be valuable?
NS: It's a very worthwhile trajectory. It’s incredibly rewarding and intellectually stimulating, and you get to have great impact in the world. I do want to be clear, though, it is a tough career path. It’s a 24-hour job, seven days a week. You're never able to turn your brain off because essentially, your company is your baby. It has to take priority over everything else. It has cost me in terms of my health and well-being, but that's the level of obsession it takes to launch something like this off the ground. There’s a reason why it's hard, and nobody's ever done it before.
The other thing is, we think about stress as a negative concept, but there's also such a thing as positive stress, and even if your company is going really well, you have this added responsibility, the expectation to keep going. Now we're getting ready to build a platform for clinical grade manufacturing. Wow. You know, it's almost like you're chasing the next horizon, and you're getting there, and then there’s the next one, which is even more ambitious.
When I started the company, in 2017, I didn't think through a scenario where we would be a successful company, where we would have 18 people on the team and have raised $16 million in seed financing, none of those things. But once things start to happen, and they start working, it is a rapid pace. You have to be prepared. I think it's very important to take care of your health and fitness and nutrition, and make sure you have a rhythm to cope with all the physical stresses of doing this.
The other thing I hadn't thought about [is the responsibility of having employees.] When I started the company with my co-founders, we all took on the risk of starting a company and we were okay with things not working out, because we were founders. But as you start growing your team and having employees, it is a big responsibility to carry the weight of so many paychecks and so many families and health insurance plans. I'm very grateful that we are in this position that we're growing, and we have a fantastic team, but the takeaway is that even when things are going well, it's pretty intense and stressful.
Last, I didn't know much about investors when I started my journey. I hit the jackpot with meeting the engine through my MIT network, but I've learned that there are incredible investors out there. You just need to go and find them. You need to be talking to the right people, so that those investors can find you. So, if you're feeling stressed out in your fundraising, just think very carefully about what would your dream investor look like? Look for those specific investors and don't worry about the rest.
JG: Good advice. So let's talk about the future…the next two years at Cellino. What does it look like for you? What are you hoping to accomplish?
NS: Our immediate goal for the next year is to show that our platform can produce really high-quality personalized stem cells. Being able to do that across different patients has not been established so far in an automated manner. We want to be the first ones to do that, and really show that we can decrease the patient-to-patient variability that you get from manual production of stem cells.
And we're going to continue expanding our team and working in parallel on designing our GMP (good manufacturing process) grade manufacturing system, which we will be starting to build soon, engaging with incredible potential partners. There’s a lot to look forward to on the technical development side, the team side, and also the business development side. So really, guns ablaze, we're going all in. This is our power in making sure that we become the leaders in this industry.
JG: It sounds like you're excited about doing a lot. Is there anything you're really concerned with? What keeps you up?
NS: What keeps me up right now is COVID and the impact on the world as a whole. I think Cellino was very fortunate to have had a well-received, successful fundraise during a global pandemic. A lot of other companies did not have that same fate. I'm grateful every day that we're not in that boat, but I'm also very empathetic towards the companies that didn't make it.
Now, with access to vaccines, you're really seeing the tides turning in North America, and Europe and other developed countries, but a huge part of the world is still suffering. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from COVID on a daily basis. And that's what's been top of my mind, because, as a biotech entrepreneur, I think it's important for us to pay attention to these things, if our mission is to bring more equity and access to health care.
I'm incredibly grateful, where we're we’ve done great during this period, but how do we as a world deal with and think about COVID and there's the nuances of how do we get back to work? How do we make sure our societies are safe? I think these are all real-world dynamics that will affect everything. And of course, in the middle of this pandemic, biotech has had the most explosively successful year ever. But you have seen venture capital financing for women led companies go down. So those are just big, bigger, bigger concerns I have.
JG: Those are a lot of concerns that keep me up at night as well. Let's talk also about how Cellino is going to change the future of regenerative medicine. Cellino is certainly disruptive and has a huge amount of potential to treat all sorts of things, retinopathy, Parkinson's, diabetes. When you're successful, how will it change regenerative medicine and treatment of disease?
NS: All of the diseases you mentioned—Parkinson's, diabetes, retinal degeneration, muscle disorders, hair loss, skin diseases—all of these have one thing in common, usually they rise due to malfunctioning cells in the human body. We should be able to produce cells on demand and give them to the patient and pretty much cure them. It could be curative to do a one-time dose transplant if we made the right cells.
The vision that Selena has for the future is to be able to make those cells customized for every single patient. Now the entire process is very expensive. It's very manual labor intensive and not economically viable or scalable the way it's currently done. It's our mission to democratize accessibility towards personalized stem cell-based therapies. That really comes down to building a platform that can manufacture cells at scale and being able to do that for thousands to hundreds of thousands of patients, all in a parallel facility. So, when there's a disease detected, or the disease is progressing, these cells can be custom made for each patient and then transplanted the body.
We were recently contacted by one of the leaders in one of the diseases I just mentioned, and I was so humbled and in awe that this world expert saw the power and potential of our technology. We're collaborating together to bring the cell therapy to all the patients that need them, and it's going to happen within the next decade. That's what's exciting to me. Right now, we work with the right collaborators, and we have the right resources put into what we know is building within the next decade. We'll have several cell therapies commercialized and ready to go for patients.
The reason I'm pushing so hard and working so hard, is because there are patients waiting for the cell therapies. If it was available 10 years ago, I think we could have saved my grandma, and that's something that keeps me motivated. And I know there to millions of other patients around the world who are suffering from the same fate, so I'm grateful to be on this journey and we're going to do the best we can.
JG: You are equal parts ambition, and smarts, so we know you'll make it. And that's all unfortunately the time we have. I could talk to you forever. It’s been fascinating.
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