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Startup Science: How the Idea for Synthetic Cells Took Silicon Valley By Storm

By Dan Fost | | June 12, 2018

Startup Science: How the Idea for Synthetic Cells Took Silicon Valley By Storm

Wendell Lim, PhD, was strictly a basic scientist, until his work started revealing a translational side that led him to create a successful business. Photo by Elena Zhukova

Scientists working on the molecular and cellular level know that big things happen in small systems.

In 2007, UCSF’s Kevan Shokat, PhD, parlayed his work on kinases – enzymes that regulate cellular pathways – into a company, Intellikine, which developed small-molecule drugs to fight cancer. Four years later, Takeda Pharmaceuticals of Japan acquired Intellikine for $190 million, boosting the odds that Shokat’s discoveries would make it into approved therapies that would reach patients.

When you experience that kind of success, colleagues take notice. So, it turns out, do their spouses.

UCSF Magazine
Summer 2018

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Wendell Lim, PhD – like Shokat, one of the leading lights in UCSF’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology – felt a little heat when his wife, Karen Earle, MD, heard the news of Shokat’s success.

“That’s really cool,” she said. “You should do that.”

Lim laughed, he recalls. “My work is not like that,” he told her, explaining that “Kevan is a chemist – a chemical biologist who develops small-molecule drugs.” It’s much more common for someone like that to have industry take their work and apply it to patients.

Lim saw himself differently. He’s a basic scientist. He’s not finding cures or designing drugs. He’s following his curiosity. He’s pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. If anything, he’s a scientist with a passion for art – someone who nearly chose an artist’s life and still loves to paint, draw, and make prints and who brings creativity to his work in the lab.

Well, he was strictly a basic scientist, until his work started revealing a translational side. That knowledge he’s uncovering? It might save lives, it turns out. As Lim pressed on with his study of the science of cells, seeking to understand their secret programming language – the way they send and receive signals to control all the important things happening in the human body – he started to take his insights to the next level. He figured if he knew how cells were programmed, then perhaps he could reprogram them. He even developed ways to create new synthetic cells, which he believed could act like tiny robots inside the body, aiding the immune system as it fights cancer cells.

That, it turned out, was an idea the biotech industry could get behind.

In 2014, the University, Lim, and several of his postdocs and other colleagues patented some of the discoveries from his lab. Venture capitalists and others began lining up to fund the creation of a company almost immediately. In 2015, Lim teamed up with a blue-chip group of investors to establish Cell Design Labs (CDL), which raised $34 million in venture capital. In what industry observers say was a head-spinning turn of events, biotech giant Gilead Sciences acquired CDL in December 2017 in a deal worth at least $175 million – and as much as $567 million if certain milestones are met.

While Earle believed in Lim’s scientific abilities, she hadn’t been seriously prodding him to follow in Shokat’s footsteps. And her offhand comment didn’t cause Lim to pursue translational medicine and start a company. He and his team simply followed the science, and, in this case, it led them to breakthroughs that could have a real impact for patients.

Noble Aims

Like Lim, most academic scientists who launch companies or license their work to the private sector are motivated by far more than the potential payout. Instead, they understand that companies have the resources and expertise to get drugs, therapies, technologies, and other solutions out of the lab and into the marketplace, where they can help patients. Companies can raise money; navigate the regulatory process; fund expensive, late-stage clinical trials; and bring products to market.