In the third installment of our Beyond the Biotech series, meet Stephanie Culler, PhD, Co-founder & CEO of Persephone Biosciences, a JLABS @ San Diego and BLUE KNIGHT™ company aiming to unlock the potential of the gut microbiome to develop equitable precision medicine. From considering a career as a professional violinist to the best advice she has received as an early-stage entrepreneur, read on to learn more about Stephanie and her company.
How does your technology align with the mission of BLUE KNIGHT™?
The mission of Blue Knight is to stimulate innovation of technologies that aim to improve health security and response to public health threats. Our technology aligns well with this mission as we are developing microbiome therapeutics that we believe have the potential to save thousands of lives by enabling robust immune responses to fight coronavirus infection, help vaccines to have long-lasting immunity, and prevent future pandemics.
How has BARDA’s mentorship through the BLUE KNIGHT™ program helped accelerate your company?
BARDA’s mentorship has enabled valuable interactions with thought leaders in the field to help guide and accelerate our research. They have also provided input on critical funding opportunities that are applicable for the stage of our infectious disease programs.
What is one surprising or fun fact about yourself?
I grew up playing the violin and almost became a professional violinist!
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?
I lost both of my grandmothers to cancer when I was a young teenager. Their battle with the disease inspired me to become a scientist and fueled the desire to be an entrepreneur one day developing cancer therapeutics.
After having commercial success in the industrial microbiology field, my co-founder and I were ready to embark on starting a company leveraging our passion for combatting cancer and our expertise of working with microbes. We were fascinated by the role that the human gut microbiome plays in all aspects of our health, including diseases like cancer. In the summer of 2017, we founded Persephone Biosciences to hopefully unlock the potential of the gut microbiome to treat cancer and disease.
How do you hope your start-up will impact or change the lives of patients?
My hope is that we will be delivering equitable precision medicine to patients with an initial focus of treating, curing, and eventually, preventing disease.
What differentiates you from competitors?
We take a real-world patient data-driven approach to developing our therapeutics. We curate large clinical data sets and procure biospecimens that could enable us to discover novel microbiome drug targets. Our clinical studies are also focused on diversity and inclusion, such that we can create medicine that works for everyone. We believe that starting the drug discovery process with human disease-based targets is critical to clinical success and for the development of equitable precision medicine.
What are some of your company’s current priorities?
The near-term priorities for Persephone Biosciences is the execution of our two recently launched large-scale clinical studies, VOICES (Vaccine Observation to Include all Communities for Equitable Science) and ARGONAUT. The goal of the VOICES clinical study is to determine the impact of gut microbiome composition and function on the immune system and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination, while the ARGONAUT study – the largest clinical study of its kind in the U.S. – aims to determine the impact of gut microbiome composition and function on the immune system and efficacy of cancer treatment. Both studies are currently enrolling patients. You can learn more at our website: https://www.persephonebiosciences.com/
No two days are alike as a startup founder – how do you organize your day?
I re-prioritize all of my activities on a daily basis!
Do you like working from home? What tools do you use to be productive/what’s your WFH setup?
Yes, I have enjoyed working from home. I can be more efficient about my time spent in meetings and general tasks. I have found that having a defined work schedule allows me to be the most productive. And I recommend taking Zoom breaks!
What startup leader do you admire most? Who has been a role model for you?
The startup leader I admire the most is Jason Kelly, the CEO and co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks. While we have been peers in the same field since graduate school, I have very much admired the work that he and his co-founders have done for paving the way for creating a synthetic biology market and growing their company from an idea while in academia to a leading company in their space. He has also served as a role model for me and the success he has had with building Gingko from the ground up gave me inspiration to do the same with Persephone Biosciences.
How do you read-in every day to know where the opportunities are, what your competitors are doing, and where the next big idea might be?
I keep up by reading the daily biotech news, updates on LinkedIn, and literature. This is the first thing I do every morning when I get up and have my first cup of coffee.
What do you wish you’d known in the early days of leading a startup that would be helpful for your fellow founders to know? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
As a scientist who has transitioned into a corporate leadership role, I did not anticipate the challenges with raising capital for my startup. A key to our success with raising our seed round was joining Y Combinator, a startup accelerator. Joining an accelerator early on to learn more about how to successfully fundraise and build your company was the best piece of advice I received early in my career.
What scientist, dead or alive, would you like to have coffee with?
Marie Curie. I did a report on Marie Curie in the 8th grade and became fascinated by the field that her work started and her legacy. As I have built my scientific career, she has served as an even more important inspiration as I have been able to appreciate her contributions more fully.
What advice would you have for new Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (“JLABS”) residents on making the most of the time, opportunities, and mentorship at JLABS?
I would very much recommend taking advantage of all the programming that JLABS provides, including webinars, CEO roundtables, and meetings with employees from the Johnson & Johnson family of Companies and Janssen. I had the fortunate opportunity through JLABS to be coached on how to pitch to investors, which provided me with tools that I now use daily.
Also, JLABS residents should take advantage of the JPAL program and other mentorship opportunities provided by their local JLABS. These mentorship opportunities have been critical in our relationship development with key functional groups at Janssen.
What is your advice on tailoring your pitch to different investors?
I typically tailor my pitch to the specific investors interest. It is important to do your due diligence on investors prior to speaking with them so you can hopefully move forward after the first pitch. From my JLABS pitch mentoring, I also learned that having the proper lighting and a clean background can improve the professional nature of your virtual pitch.
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