In this installment of our Beyond the Biotech series, meet Jeffrey Ly, CEO of mPOD, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS @ NYC and BLUE KNIGHT™ company developing a diagnostic designed for rapid detection of SARS-CoV- 2 N-proteins for diagnosis of COVID-19, along with other infectious diseases. From making the most of mentors to the best advice he’s received as an early-stage entrepreneur, read on to learn more about Jeffrey and his company.
How does your technology align with the mission of Blue Knight?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical need for fast, accurate, and rapidly deployable POC diagnostics enabling frequent, population-level testing for contact tracing and longer-term disease management. We have been thrilled to work in direct alignment with Blue Knight in the mission to combat 21st century emerging infectious diseases, with mPOD diagnostics that integrate aptamers into our biosensor platform to detect pathogens in biofluids. Aptamers are functional oligonucleotides that can be designed to bind specific targets, akin to antibodies. We have a common interest in developing accessible testing for all, whether it’s our current threat of COVID-19 or emerging health threats.
How has the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s (BARDA) mentorship through Blue Knight helped accelerate your company?
Our BARDA mentors have helped align our early-stage focus on multiple fronts, including technical development and commercial maturation. In addition, the guidance we’ve received has helped to focus our work and accelerate our development as a company in a time frame that would not have been possible otherwise.
Alongside all laboratory facilities, the expanded network has allowed us to talk, discuss, and brainstorm with thought leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs working in the exact same spaces.
Tell us the story behind the founding of your company. What’s the personal and scientific inspiration behind the founding (or your work with) this company?
mPOD plans to develop a suite of aptamer-based diagnostics for detecting numerous infectious diseases. From our time in the NSF I-Corps and NIH RADx programs, we have identified a critical missing piece in diagnostic integration - a platform technology that can easily target different antigens in a plug-and-play fashion via the addition of new aptamers. Our team has been trained to understand end-user pain points to guide the development of a technology that will be practical and impactful once deployed. Following a COVID-19 application, the company plans to develop a suite of aptamer-based methods for detecting a number of infectious diseases in areas including sepsis, surgical site infections, and other emerging diseases.
How do you hope your start-up will impact or change the lives of patients?
Following our development work to help manage COVID-19, we plan on continuing to develop and realize our core features by developing applications based on impact and value in areas including sepsis, surgical site infections, and other emerging and infectious diseases.
What differentiates you from competitors?
Our aptamer-based technology outperforms standard testing modalities in several key performance metrics such as reaction time and ease of use, with a significant focus placed on accessibility. In addition, our tests are easy to use at home, enable self-testing without healthcare workers, return results in under 15 minutes, and hold a unique supply chain compared to the current tests on the market.
No two days are alike as a start-up founder – how do you organize your day?
We organize our team with short-term and long-term goals as part of individual product roadmaps, regularly updated objectives that hold everyone accountable and enable effective communication, and regular meetings to keep projects on track. These core strategies, alongside others, keep us motivated and help define our business goals and plans while adhering to commitments.
Do you like working from home? What tools do you use to be productive/what’s your WFH setup?
Like everyone else going through the pandemic, we had to make the most of working from home. There are a few things that have helped us remain productive in terms of our WFH setup. We always stay connected with the basics and have added adjunct software for productivity and organization and regular check-ins with the different teams.
What start-up leader do you admire most? Who has been a role model for you?
While there are many incredible entrepreneurs to learn from, Elon Musk’s ethos of fail fast, learn faster while staying rooted to the basics of biology and chemistry helps drive our decisions. This fearless and unrelenting mindset keeps the team motivated to put in good work and be excited about the progress we make together and is integral to how mPOD grows as a company.
How do you read-in every day to know where the opportunities are, what your competitors are doing, where the next big idea might be?
Between our founding team, we read a variety of resources, from newsletters, to books, to blogs, to academic papers. Different resources are required for different reasons, whether we are grant writing or polishing our next pitch. However, one of the biggest and most time-efficient learning points we have come across to make sure we stay on the pulse is to learn through our contacts and network. Each day we are learning new things, and each day we are speaking to new people who share new ideas which positively shape the company’s direction in an incremental way.
What do you wish you’d known in the early days of leading a start-up that would be helpful for your fellow founders to know? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice we have received as a team is to “under-promise and over-deliver.” One of the biggest challenges that teams and individuals face is effective and well-managed teamwork and professional development with internal and external groups. As communication is key, the “under-promise and over-deliver” mantra paves the way for better expectation management, whether that is with consultants for short-term projects or with advisors for long-term strategy milestones.
What scientist, dead or alive, would you like to have coffee with?
I will be honest; I have no earthly idea. But how incredible would it be to bring back a scientist from the past to further inspire a new generation of scientists?
What advice would you have for new JLABS residents on making the most of the time, opportunities, and mentorship at JLABS?
Make sure to connect as much as you possibly can with the wider network - the backbone of JLABS and Blue Knight. The collaborations and discussions are invaluable, and the global innovation ecosystem is second to no other – with personalized training and bespoke themed areas of interest in infectious diseases threats and global public health. There is no better place to connect than within the JLABS and Blue Knight network, as we all work together to create a safer future for all.
What is your advice on tailoring your pitch to different investors/tips for pitching to investors in the virtual era?
So much of the networking experience has moved online! So, the focus has shifted to perfecting online content and optimizing the online experience: making sure the social platforms are active and engaged, making the most of online virtual conferences, and vice versa - making the most of all content that is now available online for companies and contacts moving forward, whether they are for the next investor meeting or the next big pitch.
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