Mug.News caught up recently with bioscientist, Dr. Wes Wierson to learn more about his path to entrepreneurship and experience as the founder of the early-stage biotech company, LifEngine Animal Health Laboratories, Inc. (LEAH Labs), here in the Midwest.
We will be checking in periodically with Wes and his team to see how they are progressing and to share his personal startup journey with our readers. Hopefully, his experience will inspire others to consider entrepreneurship when developing their bioscience solutions for problems in the world.
Here is Wes’ story so far, from the very beginning…
Young Wes wanted to learn more about trees – how and why do they grow? So, one day his Grandma brought him to the Science Center in Des Moines, Iowa to find out. And it was on that auspicious day in this world of discovery, that his fascination with science began.
Of course, he returned many more times to further explore the exhibits, and his wonderment grew. This early STEM exposure infused Wes with a greater appreciation and awareness of the importance of science, which eventually led him down the path to becoming a scientist himself. Fast-forward today, Dr. Wierson, now the founder of LEAH Labs, has assembled a team focused on developing a promising gene-editing derived therapy for canine lymphoma.
Like many, Wes’ path to bioscience entrepreneurship was neither direct, nor obvious.
After high school, he had no plans to go to college nor do anything definite about his interest in science. He was content at the time, just contemplating life while working the early shift at a local café. However, with some parental ‘support’ and friends’ ‘encouragement’, he finally did enroll at Iowa State University where he found his calling exploring the molecular biology of microorganisms.
It was during his undergraduate studies that Wes was first introduced to revolutionary gene-editing technology in the laboratory of renowned molecular plant pathologist, Dr. Adam Bogdanove. Adam had just invented TALENs and shown them to be useful at site specific gene-targeting. “Never before had the ability to target molecular activity to precise spots in the genome been so democratized. Little did we know that CRISPR would come along a few short years later, but TALENs opened up a whole new world of possibility in engineering cells and organisms.” Wes said.
While gaining lab and research experience, Wes first began to think about how the technology they developed in the lab could be applied to address challenges beyond discovery science at the bench. He had no idea that this thinking aligned with an entrepreneurial mindset. In fact, he had little awareness then of entrepreneurship. Sadly, it is rarely included in the training of scientists under conventional academic settings, despite the growing reliance we all have on scientific developments by entrepreneurs.
Even so, after graduating, Wes did accept an internship outside of academia, at DuPont Pioneer (now Corteva) where, as a plant transformation scientist, he continued to develop his gene-editing mind. He also continued to wonder about the broader applications of this groundbreaking technology.
Wes soon realized he could only find the answers he sought through further research and an advanced degree, so he returned to Iowa State University to pursue it. He began his doctoral work in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, under the guidance of genetic researchers, Dr. Jeff Essner and Dr. Maura McGrail.
His work led to the development of “GeneWeld”, a patent-pending targeted gene integration system using CRISPR/Cas9 that can be used to replace genes in cells with high precision and efficiency. He demonstrated its effectiveness in a zebrafish model using a fluorescent reporter gene.
“My friends would make fun of me that I just ‘make fish glow’,” Wes explains, “But of course making fish glow was a visual readout for knowing that I edited the genome. We can introduce this green fluorescent protein now, with the future goal of integrating useful genes carrying traits that reprogram cells to our benefit.”
Wes and his advisors at Iowa State collaborated with fellow genetic scientists, Dr. Stephen Ekker and Dr. Karl Clark, from the Mayo Clinic who began exploring applications of this system beyond “making fish glow”. They were working with Mayo Clinic hematologist, Dr. Saad Kenderian on CAR-T cell technology, an immunotherapy which involves genetically modifying patients’ own immune cells to target and destroy cancer cells in their bodies. The group hypothesized that the GeneWeld system could be used to engineer these cells for such cancer immunotherapy applications.
An Idea is Born:
Around this time, Wes’ beloved border collie mutt, Layla, was diagnosed with cancer. After spending over an hour with a veterinary oncologist, discussing the horrifying treatments that Layla would have to endure for a chance at a healthy life (removal of half of her jaw?? Seriously?), Wes began to wonder why this was the best option for his and other’s beloved family members.
He began to consult with a veterinary team at Iowa State around the market and need for cancer immunotherapy in dogs, and soon shifted his focus to developing a startup idea around this. In fact, due to regulatory differences governing the development of veterinary versus human biologics, Wes discovered that he could produce an application for treating canine cancers in less time and with far less expense than it would take to do so for humans.
It was later discovered that Layla, thankfully, had been misdiagnosed. Nevertheless, this experience ended up being a driving motivation for Wes a few years later. Indeed, Layla and her new canine stepbrother, Clyde, continue to be the inspiration and driving force behind Wes’ commitment to LEAH Labs.
Think like an Entrepreneur:
Wes credits the actualization of this startup idea, what was to become LEAH Labs, to the persistent support and guidance he received from his entrepreneurial-minded mentors at both his alma mater, Iowa State University, and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where his startup is currently based. “I was fortunate in a number of ways,” Wes acknowledged, “as I did not have to go out of my way to find out more about entrepreneurship like most individuals have to, as it certainly was not part of the science curriculum when I was training.” The first meeting he had with Jeff [Essner], he found out that Jeff had previously been involved in starting two companies in the gene-editing space. “It was one of the exactly three times in my life that I felt like I was where I was ‘supposed to be’. So, I began my graduate work already thinking about how to translate technology from working in zebrafish up the value chain to other cell types.”
It was not just his immediate advisors who got him thinking like an entrepreneur.
“The first time I met Steve [Ekker] early in my PhD, I knew that he was like no one I had ever crossed paths with before, just a unique breed of scientist and academic and entrepreneur. He really got into my ear quite early about creating your own job after graduate school, meaning entrepreneurship. He got me thinking more about ways to use the technology we developed to solve a problem in the world. He could see things from all angles. During the last year of my PhD, I started to have almost weekly calls with Steve, incubating the startup idea, networking with partners or future investors, thinking about how to raise funding.”
Road to Success:
Wes and Steve’s late nights paid off, with LEAH Labs being accepted into the exclusive, world-renowned Y Combinator accelerator program in Spring of 2019. “I literally flew to San Francisco to interview at Y Combinator two weeks before I defended my thesis. We were accepted into the batch that day.” Wes said. “I finished my PhD on November 30th and went to work at LEAH Labs on December 1st.”
Even with Y Combinator’s support, fundraising did not come easy. Wes admits that there was a point eight months in when things looked bleak. Investors were not interested. The company was too early in development; it was too risky. They were busy writing grants, but grants have a 4–6-month turnaround times. They did not have that long, and he questioned whether the dream was over. They had not closed an investment in 5 months of actively fundraising, and the team was reduced to him as its only full-time employee.
It was then that he came across another Y Combinator startup, working in a new fundraising space called Regulation Crowdfunding (Reg CF). Reg CF allows non-accredited investors to invest in startups. It is like Kickstarter, but instead of getting a deal on a new gadget for supporting the project, you are actually buying into the company and getting equity. LEAH launched a Reg CF campaign on Wefunder, and when it was all done, they raised $468,000.
Exploring the Daunting World of Fundraising:
“Reg CF literally saved our company” he says, matter-of-factly. “With the funding we raised on Wefunder, we were alive long enough to see the fruits of our labor come in. We’ve now received almost $400K in grant funding that includes an NSF SBIR grant, two state of Minnesota foundation grants, and an Iowa State immunotherapies seed grant.” And they have now raised over $900K in dilutive funding.
They have now hired a VP of Cell Biology, Dr. Alex Abel, to their team and are currently embarking on preliminary studies on the safety and efficacy of their CAR-T cell therapy for dogs. After the safety studies are complete, Wes plans to raise another round of financing.
Fundraising may be daunting to most, but to Wes, it’s motivating. Pitching to potential investors or writing grants is just another way for him to share his passion for the work at LEAH Labs.
“You get to ponder about the future, talk about what you built, what you plan to build, and what it could become,” he explains. “But it sure is tough”.
Saving our Furry Family Members:
According to the American Humane Society, there are over 60 million households in America with dogs, over 85% of which regard their furry companions as family. The American Kennel Club Health Foundation indicates that 1 in every 15 of these canine family members will develop lymphoma, one of the most common cancers diagnosed in dogs. Conventional treatment includes chemotherapy which often costs upwards of $10K and only prolongs life for a short time. LEAH Labs therapy would cost much less and could eliminate the cancer altogether. Thus, one would expect that there would be considerable interest in LEAH Labs’ work, especially given their progress since those days before the Wefunder.
In fact, this was reflected in the number of investors (847, to be exact) that LEAH Labs attracted on Wefunder, “It is really helpful,” suggests Wes, “The crowdfunding also showed how many people care about what we are building. Everyone loves their dogs, but some investors don’t understand the need for a breakthrough treatment. Hopefully, the support from so many dog lovers on Wefunder will be weighed favorably by future investors.”
Though Wes could not imagine another path of work, he admits it has been tough sometimes being a solo founder. Though he has a great support network of advisors such as Steve and his other part time scientific co-founders, he is the one whose sole purpose is to run the company and keep it going, who is responsible for everything, which can be stressful to think about.
“The hardest part, what I’m always trying to improve on, is learning how to manage and prioritize what needs to get done and when, when everything has to be done” -Dr. Wes WiersonTweet
“The hardest part, what I’m always trying to improve on, is learning how to manage and prioritize what needs to get done and when, when everything has to be done,” Wes describes the process, “It is a rollercoaster ride – today you can be so stoked and productive, then tomorrow you feel so overwhelmed and do not want to do anything but look at your [computer] screen. I have been told that many founders, especially in Silicon Valley, find therapy helpful – founder therapy. But also finding other founders to talk to who have nothing to do with your business but with whom you can relate, to get things off your chest, is really helpful.”
Conversely, Wes’ favorite moment running the company so far was making that first hire. “We knew within a few weeks that we got a keeper in Alex. We’re a 1, 2 punch; he does the cell work and builds our immunology strategy, while I do the molecular work and move our gene-editing forward. With Alex, we could finally start to answer the questions that we needed to answer. Without Alex, we wouldn’t be where we are today” he explains, “and, what really excites me for the future is expanding the team, raising funds to hire more folks who can help build out this vision upon the culture that Alex and I have started to create.”
Wes receives additional founder support from the Mayo Clinic’s Office of Entrepreneurship, who also provides laboratory space for LEAH Labs and through a newly minted biotech peer group started by the non-profit co-working space in Rochester, Collider. He has been paying it forward helping to increase entrepreneurial awareness among scientists by speaking about bioscience entrepreneurship during graduate school conferences at Iowa State, and giving lectures to high school students enrolled in innovation programs in Iowa.
Bioscientist to Entrepreneur:
Wes encourages other bioscientists to consider entrepreneurship as a parallel path to academia for developing real-world applications of their science. He suggests the process for building a research lab in academia and becoming a professor is exactly like starting a company. “Writing grants matches pitching to investors, managing your research program is like building a product, hiring a team and running a lab, just like building a company, writing papers is like regulatory submissions,” he says. Academia is quite analogous to building a company.”
“In one path you are creating value for a university or for the greater good of science. Noble pursuits, no doubt. But in startups, you’re bringing value directly to the real world, and for yourself, your team, and your investors. And in startups, the value could be infinite.”