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Creating Companies Before 35: Meet the Young Innovator Award Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

Entrepreneur, scientist, doctor, startup founder, CEO, and in some cases, all of the above. This year’s Young Innovator award finalists—all 35 and under—have shown that they can do it all to try to translate an idea into new treatments or digital tools for patients and healthcare providers. Here’s more on the finalists. The winner will be announced at the Xconomy Awards gala on Sept. 5 in Boston.

(Read about the finalists in the CEO, Startup, Digital Trailblazer, Innovation at the Intersection, Big Idea, Contrarian and Newcomer categories, and the winner of our Lifetime Achievement award.)

Lissy Hu, CarePort Health
The idea for her company, CarePort Health, took shape while Lissy Hu was in medical school nearly a decade ago, but it’s rooted in her early experiences. Her mother worked as a home health aide and nurse, and before medical school, Hu worked in a hospital in the Bronx. She saw how important “post-acute” services were for patients who were ready to leave the hospital, but still needed therapy at home with a rehab specialist or at another facility like a nursing home. Hu also noticed how difficult it was for patients and healthcare providers to coordinate this transition. Finding the right post-acute facility and monitoring patients after they left the hospital were not easy.

Hu came up with the concept for CarePort while she was getting her MD and MBA at Harvard. She entered and won a Harvard business plan competition in 2012. That same year, she got additional funding, $3.8 million, through the Techstars Boston accelerator program, allowing her to launch CarePort in 2013. The company built out its software, which patients use to find a post-acute provider and hospitals use to track patient outcomes. In 2016, national healthcare IT company Allscripts (NASDAQ: MDRX) acquired CarePort for an undisclosed sum. CarePort’s software is now available both as a standalone product and integrated into Allscript’s platform, which is used by 1,000 hospitals and 20,000 post-acute care facilities. Hu, 31, runs both the CarePort business unit and the larger Allscripts care coordination unit, which were rolled under the CarePort name this year.

Cigall Kadoch, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Cigall Kadoch moved to Boston in 2014 to start her lab as a new professor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She was just 27 at the time, making her one of the youngest scientists to become a professor at Harvard Medical School. Kadoch is not one to waste time. Before joining Harvard, she earned her PhD in less than three years, making key discoveries that now form the basis for her startup, Foghorn Therapeutics (a finalist in the Startup category), which launched earlier this year with $50 million in venture funding.

As a graduate student, Kadoch studied chromatin, the tightly wound ball of DNA and proteins inside the cell’s nucleus. The cell changes the structure of chromatin as a way of regulating gene activity. She found that mutations in molecules that shift the structure of chromatin, called chromatin-remodeling complexes, cause a rare type of cancer called synovial sarcoma, and these mutations could be involved in at least 20 percent of all cancers. Now Kadoch, 32, is a board member of Foghorn, which is looking for ways to target chromatin regulators in various cancer types.

Kathleen McCarthy, Skyhawk Therapeutics
Kathleen McCarthy was working as a scientist for the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Foundation early in her career when she was first introduced to the idea of targeting RNA with small molecule drugs—the basis for her current startup. The SMA Foundation funds R&D focused on finding new drugs for SMA, a rare genetic disease. While at the foundation, McCarthy helped developed an SMA drug belonging to PTC Therapeutics (work that was funded by the SMA Foundation). That drug, now being tested in late-stage trials through a partnership with Roche and the SMA Foundation, is a small molecule that targets a particular RNA molecule. It works by changing how the RNA is spliced, or edited, by the cell, to increase production of the protein made from that RNA molecule.

McCarthy moved to Roche to help advance the SMA drug into clinical testing, and started thinking about how small molecules could be used to correct RNA splicing errors in other diseases. She went to her friend, tech entrepreneur and investor Bill Haney, with the idea for a company, and together they co-founded Skyhawk Therapeutics in 2016, where McCarthy, 34, is chief scientific officer. Skyhawk recently announced a $60 million deal with Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) and $40 million in financing from a variety of investors. The company says it could start clinical trials for its first drug, in cancer, by late next year.

James McLaughlin, Gemini Therapeutics
James McLaughlin cut his teeth building life science companies as a venture associate with Third Rock Ventures. But it was an interest in ophthalmology earlier in his career that sparked McLaughlin to start and lead his own company. Gemini Therapeutics is tackling the “dry” form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of vision loss with no approved treatments.

About a decade ago, while McLaughlin was working for an ophthalmology contract research organization, he saw a new generation of eye disease drugs emerge, as well as new genetic insight into AMD. McLaughlin got his MBA and then moved into venture capital. While at Third Rock, he worked on forming rare disease companies, and helped create Voyager Therapeutics, where he headed up operations after it launched.

But McLaughlin, now 34, always wanted to independently start a company. He was also seeing more AMD discoveries, such as the existence of rare subpopulations of AMD patients with severe forms of the disease that were linked to key genetic markers. McLaughlin co-founded Gemini in 2015 to develop therapies—antibodies, recombinant proteins, and gene therapy—that target some of these genetically defined subgroups. The company announced a $42.5 million Series A round of financing last year and is working on programs for three targets.

Carl Schoellhammer, Suono Bio
By the time Carl Schoellhammer arrived at MIT as a grad student in 2010, he knew he wanted to work on a project that could translate into something that would help patients. He joined the lab of Robert Langer, which had developed an ultrasound-based technology to deliver drugs through the skin. Schoellhammer and his colleagues wondered if the approach could work in other parts of the body like the gastrointestinal (GI) tract for people with, for example, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD drugs that are delivered through the rectum often don’t reach the key tissues effectively. Schoellhammer thought the ultrasound technology could improve drug delivery in the GI tract and even allow the administration of bigger therapeutic molecules such as DNA for gene therapy, without having to reformulate the drugs.

Schoellhammer, now 31, graduated from MIT in 2015 and co-founded a company, Suono Bio, in 2017. His team is developing a handheld system that administers the drug and generates ultrasound. The sound waves generate tiny bubbles in the drug itself, and the collapse of the bubbles physically propels the drug from the GI cavity (or the oral cavity for oral diseases) into the surrounding tissue. Suono is gearing up to test its device with an approved drug in humans with an inflammatory GI disease next year. Suono has raised $1.5 million to get it to next year’s clinical trial.

Luhan Yang, eGenesis
When Luhan Yang got CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to work in human cells, she was just getting started. As a grad student in the lab of Harvard geneticist George Church, she was one of the first scientists to make this breakthrough in 2013. She went on to use CRISPR to edit pig cells. The idea was to make pigs a safe source of organs for human transplantation and alleviate the organ shortage. To do that, Yang and her colleagues had to first turn off genes for harmful pig retroviruses that could be spread to humans via transplanted organs. The researchers showed in 2015 that they could use CRISPR to simultaneously deactivate 62 retrovirus genes in pig cells. And in 2017, they announced they had generated virus-free pigs using CRISPR gene-edited pig cells.

In 2015, Yang and Church cofounded eGenesis to commercialize this work, and Yang, now 32, serves as chief scientific officer. The company is also tweaking the pig genome to make pig-grown tissues more human-like. The company secured $38 million in Series A financing last year.