A woman stands on a mountain at sunset (or sunrise) with her back to the camera and a fist in the air

Four Entrepreneurs, Four Journeys

11/15/2022
By Yanting “Raven” Luo

Consider four companies: Switchback Systems, which improves the DNA synthesis platform; Avails Medical, which accelerates the detection of pathogens in any bodily fluid; Enzyme By Design, which reduces the toxicity of cancer chemotherapeutics; and Fit Hidden Figure, which empowers people to transform their physique in a matter of weeks by leveraging the latest in science and technology. Despite their diversity, in spanning the fields of research, diagnostics, therapeutics, and fitness, these four companies are united by their sound scientific foundations. Each of them was also founded by an AWIS member: Dr. Mary Noe (Switchback Systems), Dr. Meike Herget (Avails Medical), Dr. Amanda Schalk (Enzyme by Design), and Karene Richards-Wise, CFA, IFBB Pro (Fit Hidden Figure).

The Companies: How They Started

Mary had been obsessed with the chemistry around DNA and RNA since she was an undergrad, 20 years before the recent spike in demand for DNA synthesis in vaccine research, precision medicine, and synthetic biomaterials. She completed a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary PhD in organic chemistry at the University of California San Diego, through which she helped to create novel chemical structures in synthetic DNA and RNA and to develop biophysical assays— yet she felt that she had failed because she did not fit the conventional image of an expert chemist: someone who spends all their time honing one specific technique.

During her PhD work, Amanda studied at one of the prestigious Max Planck Institutes in Germany, which are known for Nobel laureates and for being the ultimate dream job for the scientists around her. However, she found herself more interested in how to apply scientific discoveries to the world, and not in three decades but immediately.

Meike also became curious about how to bring her discoveries out into the world, but she initially struggled to choose between starting a company and starting a lab. While growing up and training in Germany, she had thought that academia was the only option for scientists. Then her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University exposed her to entrepreneurship. When she received the National Institutes of Health’s Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) to start her research group, Meike realized that she had a decision to make about her path forward.

Karene had already found success, applying her talent in mathematics to the trading desk at investment banks. When her mother lost her battle with breast cancer—and the doctors discovered a lump in Karene’s breast ten years later—she had to reconsider priorities in her life. It seemed like her high-achieving personality conflicted intensely with self-care.

Their Journeys

In the face of these obstacles, and much like chemical reactions, the founders had enough energy to overcome challenges and to activate their start-ups.

Mary realized that her ability to communicate across disciplines did not make her a failure but instead would be the key to her success. She went into industry after finishing her PhD. At established companies like Agilent and Twist, she worked with diverse teams and found herself talking in depth with fellow chemists, as well as with biologists, physicists, and engineers. When access to large pools of DNA became a pain point in science, medicine, and engineering, Mary launched her company—Switchback Systems. She then leveraged her expertise and interdisciplinary skills to scale up DNA synthesis.

Unlike Mary, Amanda chose to do a postdoc with a translational bend after her PhD. Specifically, she worked to reduce the toxicity of the L-asparaginase class of enzymes, the bacterial version of which has been used as a chemotherapeutic for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of pediatric cancer, since the 1970s. She achieved a breakthrough by utilizing the unique structure of the guinea pig version of L-asparaginase. Although the guinea pig enzyme had been discovered serendipitously in the 1950s as the unknown substance in guinea pig blood able to regress lymphoma in mice, it was relegated to history until Amanda’s team rediscovered it. Equipped with modern recombinant DNA technology, she was able to purify, characterize, and engineer the guinea pig L-asparaginase to optimize its use as a chemotherapeutic, which prompted the formation of Enzyme by Design. Freeing herself from the basic research focused mindset that she had experienced during her graduate studies, she has turned her findings into a highly effective product with a maximized safety profile which holds the promise of treating more patients and expanding its indications for use.

At the end of her own postdoc, Meike decided to put her K99 grant on hold for six months to dip her toes into entrepreneurship. Together with Dr. Oren Knopfmacher, her classmate at the Stanford Ignite entrepreneurial studies program, Meike evolved several business ideas until Avails Medical eventually took shape. She and her partner began with a prototype of a home monitoring device for epilepsy patients. It could detect epileptic drugs in patients’ saliva, eliminating the need for patients to check their drug levels in a blood sample drawn at the hospital. However, Meike and Oren learned quickly that their sensor technology revealed an even bigger market opportunity for infectious disease. They pivoted to using their electronic sensor technology for pathogen detection in urine and then expanded their focus to antibiotic susceptibility testing for patients with life-threatening bloodstream infections, as a means of addressing the worldwide emergence of antibiotic resistance that makes treatment more and more challenging. By switching from current optical measurements of pathogen cell density to electronic sensing of metabolites released from living organisms, they created a reliable way to rapidly detect and monitor bacteria’s response to different antibiotics in the presence of blood and without the need to isolate pathogens from blood in a lengthy process. Thus, they dramatically accelerated the time- to-results from multiple days to a few hours. Meike has not looked back at academia.

The way Karene resolved her conflict was markedly different from Meike’s approach. Rather than choosing between career achievement and self-care, Karene entered a bikini competition as a way of working on her personal health and fitness. Within two years, she earned the title of Masters Bikini Overall with the National Physique Committee. Happily, the lump in her breast also disappeared, and her health improved. Unexpectedly, she also noticed that she had greater vitality, more confidence, and a stronger sense of presence, which opened up board service opportunities for her. Additionally, by incorporating a healthy and fit lifestyle into her routine as a study strategy, Karene was able to pass the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam. She became passionate about creating similar outcomes for others, especially for women and people of color, who suffer from pay inequities. She has named her personal training and health coaching business “Fit Hidden Figure,” and she has leveraged her mathematical skills to develop a robust scientific system to help people transform their physiques.

Their Vision

Like nuclear chain reactions, the founders have sustained their businesses and painted new visions for the future.

Mary’s Switchback Systems is developing a benchtop DNA synthesis platform that is more environmentally friendly than factory pipelines. By virtue of its compactness, the benchtop machine will drastically reduce the volume of flammable organic reagents and the amount of plastic waste. Its synthesis technology will be faster, cheaper and customizable to researchers who want to make their own DNA in the lab. Mary hopes that the platform will make her skill set obsolete and will democratize DNA synthesis for everyone, even for people who do not have a chemistry background.

The safer, mammalian L-asparaginase at Amanda’s Enzyme by Design has passed lab tests and is now ready to be manufactured at a large scale in preparation for studies that grant approval for first-in-human clinical trials. Meanwhile, based on consultations with physicians and nurses, Amanda is working on extending the half-life of the enzyme to create more convenient dosing schedules for patients, many of whom are children.

Meike and Oren’s Avails Medical is conducting clinical trials that will be used to support a submission for FDA clearance for use in hospitals, with the goal of reducing sepsis deaths by up to 80%. Their scalable platform technology will enable them to address more unmet needs in the infectious disease space, such as urinary tract infections, or even to use the approach in other cell diagnostic applications.

Karene has transformed over 250 lives with Fit Hidden Figure’s unique methodology. She empowers people, especially women of color, to build not just their own bodies and lifestyles, but also generational health and wealth. She is automating her coaching with videos and machine learning to scale the business and, ultimately, touch more lives.

The Founders

Throughout their start-up journeys, these women have shined with their entrepreneurial qualities: Mary embodies versatility. She has not limited herself to being an expert in DNA synthesis chemistry. Instead, she has communicated with biologists, physicists, engineers, as well as with colleagues, investors, and clients, across disciplines. Mary’s ability to collaborate has made her uniquely suited to creating a DNA synthesis platform that will democratize her chemical expertise.

Amanda exemplifies insight. Not only has she compared the past and present states of science to take advantage of historical accidents and to fix mistakes, but she has also looked beyond current scientific discoveries to ponder whether they might address unmet needs in people’s lives in the future.

Meike is a risk-taker. She has taken a leap from academia into the unfamiliar waters of entrepreneurship. Unafraid of failure, she quickly tried many disease spaces before landing in sepsis research and launching Avails Medical.

Karene has shaken up an industry with her innovation. Rather than stopping where most trainers have, with existing methods to transform the physique, she has researched how to streamline such technologies as dexa scans, heart rate monitors, and precise meal plans. Through controlled scientific experiments and mathematical analysis, Karene has personalized the best bodybuilding approach for each client.

Their Communities

Entrepreneurship may still be considered an unconventional career path, and the fields of science, technology, medicine, and fitness may still be dominated by men. But these women have overcome these challenges by building supportive communities around them. When their own resourcefulness met the support of family, friends, colleagues, and advisors, these women’s networks propelled them forward.

Mary is grateful for her classmates in grad school, who happen to be predominantly women. Although she is the only founder among the diverse professionals in her cohort—from PIs to venture capitalists—she has gained confidence from them, as well as a starting point for gaining the external knowledge necessary for her business.

Amanda was surprised by the number of highly experienced Chicago entrepreneurs who guided her when she came on the scene. Once an AWIS mentee, she now pays it forward by mentoring other young women founders and by participating in professional organizations like Women In Bio and HerCsuite™.

When Meike moved to Silicon Valley from Germany for her postdoc, she did not know anyone, but she has found a home in the entrepreneurial ecosystem there and has served as the president of the Palo Alto chapter of AWIS.

Karene came to the United States for college with a scholarship to Howard University, but also with help from a group of pharmacists back home in Jamaica, who pooled the required funds for the U.S. government to approve her visa. Named one of the “100 Most Influential People of African Descent Under 40” by the United Nations in 2019, Karene continues to surround herself with supportive women, from her business coach to her hair stylist. Having served as interim CEO of AWIS from August 2018 to February 2019, Karene is now the AWIS national governing board’s chair of finance and investments. She has been asked to become a health coach for women who are CFA charter holders.

These founders’ paths demonstrate that the distance between entrepreneurship and other careers is smaller than we might realize. Mary was inspired to revolutionize DNA synthesis after working in industry for companies like Agilent and Twist. Amanda’s marketable, novel chemotherapeutic was discovered in an academic research lab. Meike and Karene both had other careers in mind when new opportunities in life made them pivot to entrepreneurship. As society changes to become more open to founders—especially women founders—we can both learn from and support the entrepreneurial members of our own communities.

Yanting “Raven” Luo is a PhD student in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics (UPGG) at Duke University. She does research in evolutionary genomics and is passionate about science communication.