Business and biology in perfect synthesis
Alex Lorestani and Nick Ouzounov are the co-founders of Geltor, a San Leandro, California-based startup that aims to use organism engineering, fermentation and materials science to provide the food and cosmetics industries with a superior source of proteins, such as gelatin and collagen, that are currently derived from animals. But, unlike many biotech startups, Geltor isn’t a spin-off from an established academic lab. Instead, Lorestani and Ouzounov used a biotech accelerator program called IndieBio to go into business directly from graduate school.
Lorestani and Ouzounov met in Zemer Gitai’s laboratory, while Lorestani was an M.D.-Ph.D. student in the Princeton-Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School program and Ouzounov was a graduate student co-supervised by Josh Shaevitz. The pair began discussing recent advances in synthetic biology, and how these techniques could be used to produce complex animal proteins in microbes, thereby reducing the use of animal products in the manufacture of a variety of consumer staples, from candies to cosmetics.
Just two years later, as Geltor prepares to launch its first product onto the market, we talked with Lorestani, the company’s CEO, and Ouzounov, its CTO, about their whirlwind journey from grad school to biotech entrepeneurs.
Did you always think you were going to end up starting your own business, or did you see yourself staying in academic research?
Nick Ouzounov: There’s always been an exploratory side to me; I had a lab in my basement when I was 4 years old! But the main thing was for me to be able to do the research I wanted to do, whether that was in an academic or industry setting. I had always kind of had a dream of starting my own company, so I took an entrepreneurial course while I was at Princeton. But it wasn't clear to me how I would start a company until Alex and I began this adventure.
Alex Lorestani: I've always been interested in the business side of science but I assumed that I’d follow the more traditional academic path, which for me would have involved residency followed by some further scientific training, until I got the financing to work on a project that could become a business. But it was really Nick who had been exploring the entrepreneurial side of things and who identified the IndieBio program before, I think, a lot of people knew about it. That's what gave us the opportunity to build a company a lot earlier than most scientists are able to in their careers.
When and how did you get the idea for what would end up becoming Geltor?
AL: So, a couple of things came together in the summer of 2015. One was that there was this financing opportunity through the IndieBio accelerator program that was going to kick off its second class in San Francisco that fall. They give you some pre-seed capital, private lab space, and a network of mentors and investors. At the same time, Nick and I had been exploring ideas at the intersection of biology, design and industry. We were excited by particular advances in synthetic biology and recognized some interesting opportunities in the consumer products market. We put together an application for that IndieBio class and it's been kind of a whirlwind since then. It's hard to believe it was only two and a half years ago.
NO: Yeah, we jotted together some ideas about how we could apply synthetic biology towards the production of consumer goods, rather than towards medical products. So, the start of it was just us sitting together getting coffee and making the application. Then, when we got the okay, it was a rush to figure out how we were going to get to San Francisco! Alex found some people on Craigslist that we’d never met before and we moved to San Francisco soon after.
So, had you already decided to work on synthesizing gelatin and collagen synthesis? Or was that still unclear at the point you moved to San Francisco?
AL: We were just really excited about combining some of the emerging tools in synthetic biology with computational approaches to protein design and using these techniques to build materials that people use billions of times a day. Gelatin and collagen were at the top of our list for a number of reasons. But, until we actually got to San Francisco and started to build these things in the lab, we certainly considered other possibilities.
How long did the IndieBio seed funding last and what were the next steps after that?
AL: IndieBio is basically a semester-based program, so we were there from September 2015 to February 2016. One of the great things that we learned while we were there was the importance of building momentum with the experiments that you're doing. Making sure you’re asking the right questions and using your resources aggressively. Our goal at IndieBio was to take this idea that we had on the back of a napkin and, just with our results at a very small scale, convince ourselves and our customers that this was an approach that could change the way that people make consumer products and that it was worth pursuing at the next level. And that's something that we were able to achieve. By the end of 2015 we were convinced that our approach worked and could be scaled up to the point where we could begin the hard work of building our business.
At the beginning of 2016, we closed another round of financing and we focused on putting together an investor team and a group of employees that could help us scale up the technology and have a meaningful business relationship with the customers that we had started speaking to at IndieBio. That’s what we worked on for about a year and, today, we’re focused on launching our first collagen product.
It's been really fulfilling for both of us. We came into the IndieBio program straight from graduate school, so it was our first time going from an initial concept to product development and sales, and to have closed the loop on our first product within a couple of years is very satisfying and really inspires confidence that we'll be able to do this many more times.
Where do you see things going over the next few years?
AL: Looking ahead, we're going to be focusing on building solutions for companies that make technical, cosmetic or food and beverage products where texture is an important component of the consumer experience. The collagens that we designed when we were starting the company were really the beginning of a multigenerational product line that will reach far beyond where we started. These are going to be the first synthetic biology-enabled protein ingredients to be launched. That gets us excited because it isn’t just a milestone for the Geltor team, it’s a milestone for the entire field of synthetic biology.
Do you still work in the lab? What is your working day like?
NO: For me, my days are mostly spent overseeing what other people are doing in the lab and designing new kinds of production, designing new genetic circuits and stuff like that. So, most of what I do on a day to day basis is working with other scientists to make sure that our goals are achieved and that our research is headed in the right direction. I've stepped back from the bench a lot but sometimes I come in on weekends and do a little bit when there's less people around. It's definitely different than graduate school. I guess it's slightly more like what a PI does.
AL: Most of the work that I do now is with either customers or investors. But, even if neither of us ever go into the lab again—which I have a hard time imagining—as scientists we have an approach to problem solving that we can use anywhere. I think that there's a strong scientific and quantitative approach to all of our decision-making processes and everything that we do. That’s something that will be a lasting part of our training from Princeton.
Looking back over the last few years, what were the biggest challenges for you and what advice would you give to anybody who might be thinking of following a similar path?
AL: Probably the biggest challenge for both of us has simply been the limitations of time. Whether you're an academic scientist or working in industry or at a startup, there are so many interesting and potentially important things that you could work on. But there's only 24 hours in a day. And the big challenge I think for everyone is really focusing on something and working hard to give whatever opportunity's in front of you the resources that it requires.
NO: I would agree. Time is definitely the biggest challenge. The advice I would give is just for people to give whatever their dreams are a shot. I think a lot of people assume that whatever idea they have has already been dealt with and somebody has either solved it or tried it and found it isn't possible. But in reality, I don't think anything is impossible and things that have been tried in the past are worth revisiting because we have all sorts of new technologies, especially in synthetic biology. There's a lot of room for people to launch a startup and apply what they learned in graduate school or during their postdoc.
AL: Zemer Gitai— my PI and Nick's co-advisor—is also the director of graduate studies and I still remember him talking to the first-year students as they were coming into the program about the career opportunities they had as scientists. And the point he made was that whatever you're doing, however competitive the environment is, there's always room at the top for great people. Whether you’re talking about graduate students applying for postdocs, postdocs applying for professorships, or startups seeking funding and trying to build products in a competitive space, there are lots of things that have to go your way. But if you're genuinely excited about something and pour every ounce of your being into it, you'll be able to find a way. That was great advice from Zemer that has stuck with me ever since.