What is your background?
My background is in academia; I’m a trained PhD Immunologist. But, I came from a family that was very entrepreneurial, so I grew up around people who thought if you had an idea, “Why not? Go try it!”
While I was drawn to Science, I was always fascinated by the end-user applications of scientific discoveries. In Science, publications are the product, which is satisfying in that you’re furthering this field of knowledge. But it’s also a little frustrating, because there are not always straightforward ways to take that idea further, to turn it into something that can be beneficial for people. I was always inspired by entrepreneurship because it would allow for me to take that knowledge and turn it into something tangible; immediately beneficial for people.
How far along into your academic career were you when you decided to take this chance?
In terms of Prellis’ core technology, it was just a couple of years before I left academia that I started thinking about 3D printing human tissue. I am an imaging specialist, and had been thinking, if there is a way to image tiny blood vessels with two-photon microscopy, the same small blood vessels necessary to build larger tissues, there must be a way to print it fast enough to be meaningful in organ and tissue manufacturing. I couldn’t shake the idea for years. I knew that if we could solve that problem, it would be incredibly meaningful to the world of human tissue engineering and therapeutic development. So that idea stuck with me, I kept coming back to it, and it led me to found Prellis.
Tell us about Prellis.
Prellis is a tissue engineering company that has the fastest bioprinting technology at the highest resolution in the world. We are more than 400 times faster than any other technology that prints at the same resolution. Things that take us a day to print will take anyone else a year and a half to recreate. Currently our focus is applying rapid bioprinting technology to recreating the immune system and human tumor-immune system models in vitro.
We chose this area to be the first one we tackle because of the massive gap in predictive abilities between animal models and human immune responses. The human immune system is inaccessible unless you're doing a clinical trial, so the field relies on animal studies, and a lot of looking at human cells in a dish. Without 3D structure and cellular niches critical for an immune response, even human cells in 2D culture are poor predictors and real-world outcomes fail to produce high affinity human antibodies, one of our specialties. Many clinical trial failures can be traced back to off-target immune responses that were unanticipated with all these surrogate models, so we strip that away and we provide an actual model that replicates a human immune response in a scalable and consistent way with minimal overhead. With functional lymph node organoids, we can investigate human immune responses in a way that no one else has.
The understanding of how the human immune system works in a repeatable and scalable way is going to change the way we approach therapeutic development. Ultimately, this will reduce the eventual cost of therapeutics and their development. We’ll be able to build better drugs faster.
Where do you find inspiration?
I didn’t really have a name for imposter syndrome for a very long time. But, I was always putting myself in situations where I felt out of my league. I think I’ve been drawn to try challenging things and have always been motivated by learning. In the scientist-to-business-leader transition, I looked for people who’ve done the same: people who’ve made similar transitions.
I was always this way. As a child, I grew up as a competitive swimmer, and when I was six or seven years old, I was on a swim team, and I was the fastest in my age group. I just knew I should be swimming with the eight- and nine-year-olds. One day I started showing up to their practice. And the coach was like, “Wait a minute! Who is this new kid in the pool?” He was kind and took me aside and taught me how to introduce myself rather than just show up and start “doing.” Sometimes, I still have to remember to introduce myself first.
A more recent example is when I knew I wanted to make the entrepreneurial transition out of academia. In academia, we have PowerPoint presentations, but we don't call them slide decks. I remember sitting in a conference and this woman on stage kept talking about the deck she built, and I was looking around thinking, “What does ‘deck’ even mean?” The vocabulary is just totally different. I had built over 100 decks already, given plenty of presentations, but academics simply don’t call them ‘decks’. So, I draw inspiration internally from a desire to learn and do, while always looking for other people who are challenging themselves.
Who are your heroes?
I don't know that I can pick just one person, but, this is the mental exercise I do to keep me going when faced with new challenges: I imagine that I have a personal advisory board for my life. Every time I meet someone inspirational, watch a talk I find moving, or I think of one of my mentors, I think about them all sitting in a boardroom as my personal advisory board. I think about how they would approach a similar problem, or what have they done in their lives that is similar and how they handled it. I always have seven to eight people I admire and reference in rotation.
What excites you about the future of your industry?
I love how much the world of medicine is being accelerated by technology. I can’t think of anything more exciting as a scientist than witnessing firsthand the acceleration and improved accuracy of “bench side to bedside” translational medicine.
What drives you to keep going when it’s really tough?
It’s the same thing that drove me to start Prellis. I looked around and knew no one was solving the problem that I thought I could. I kept thinking to myself, if I don’t solve it, who would? For inspiration I often remind myself of the end-stage applications and the lives it could change. Also, I really don’t think there’s anything more exciting than starting your own company. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating. Every founder is personally challenged in new ways, so no matter how good you are every skill and every foible feels magnified. It’s certainly not an endeavor for the faint of heart. Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything more fun than taking a back-of-a-napkin sketch and turning it into game-changing life-changing technology.
Does Prellis have core cultural values?
Our critical core values are respect and trust in the workplace. We work very hard and execute rapidly. Without respect and trust, it would be impossible to build what we have built—a multifaceted technology platform—as quickly as we did. Moving quickly is also an advantage of being a small company. We don’t have to go through five sub-committees to make a decision. Personally, I am a bit allergic to bureaucracy and am naturally driven to streamline processes. That's part of the reason I’ve kept close to the science—I don't want people to have to wait a week or two to talk to me when questions arise, or problems show up. This allows for rapid responses at all levels of the company during development of a technology.
What are you most proud of?
I am very proud of our team and how truly mission-driven they are. I am excited that each of them can be proud of their contribution to our technology. Startups are not easy, and employees choose to take a risk and join a team that doesn’t have every last thing figured out. It can be uncomfortable, and people must be able to adjust to change. But that, too, is part of the fun. I am so proud of our team that has time and time again risen to the occasion, and executed beautifully on developing our technology.