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Doing Business on the Scientific Frontier: Ken Horne, Symic Bio, and the Extracellular Matrix


The JLABS alumni list is full of scientific trail-blazers; innovative companies at the forefront of biological research and thinking who use their expertise to not only craft new technology and therapies, but to completely rethink the way we approach the healing process. For Symic Bio, this new frontier is found by exploring treatment options not for the cells themselves as is typically done, but for the environment they reside in -the extracellular matrix (ECM) – and its critically important roles in biology.

It can initially be a challenge for people who don’t have a string of science degrees to wrap their heads around the biologically-active ECM. It helps to think of the it as a sort of non-cellular, sponge-like scaffolding that makes up the environment in which cells proliferate, migrate, and differentiate.

It was the ECM and these proteoglycans that Symic Bio co-founder and biomedical engineer Alyssa Panitch, Ph.D., had been pondering at Purdue for 6 years prior to the company’s founding. She realized that very few people had been targeting the ECM with a drug, opting instead to remain focused on the cells themselves, and saw a big opportunity. She began developing biomimetic technology targeting the ECM, but - as can be common among scientific thinkers - was struggling to turn this new technology into a viable business. That is, until she and her graduate students Kate Stuart, Ph.D., and John Paderi, Ph.D., went to Stanford and teamed up with Ken Horne.

At that time Ken was at TauTona Group, an early stage life science venture capital fund, that he helped start. He had been thinking about moving into a more direct operating role when he encountered Alyssa’s work on proteoglycans and the matrix. The technology she had been developing pulled him from his life as an investor to take on the role of CEO at the newly-formed Symic Bio in 2013.

As CEO of this new company, Ken faced an array of challenges common to startups. They were just a few people operating out of somebody’s living room with very little cash to spend on growing the company. Fortunately, Symic Bio was armed with innovative technology and a CEO with experience navigating the VC culture of Silicon Valley.

Ken was introduced to Doug Crawford, the associate director at QB3, a nonprofit research and technology institute that collaborated with Johnson & Johnson Innovation to open JLABS @ QB3 . Symic Bio needed lab infrastructure including clean, well-managed equipment and QB3 was willing to offer it to them.

Armed with venture capital from excited investors ($18 millionseries A, followed by $25 M series A2, and $30 M series B to support development of SB-030 and SB-061, two candidate therapeutics currently in clinical trials) and a supportive community at JLABs of other startups, Symic Bio grew in just a couple of years from a small handful of people to 18 people working out of a state-of-the-art laboratory when they “graduated” from JLABS @QB3 in February of 2016.

When asked what advice he would give to other budding science entrepreneurs based on his experiences as CEO of Symic Bio, Ken says, “Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you first imagine it will. Then take that projected amount and double it again. It’s easy to be pressured and deluded into forgetting that bumps happen. Things never go according to plan. You have to build flexibility into your strategy to handle the unexpected.”

And for innovative scientists trying to get their great new idea off the ground, he adds, “At the end of the day, you’re running a business. If you want to do just science, stay in academia. As easy as it is for scientists to fall in love with science, they have to take a step back and look at it as a business.”

Great advice, though it obviously helps to involve successful leaders like Ken Horne and organizations devoted to giving innovative ideas a chance like JLABS @ QB3.