From the golf course to the lab, and a fortuitous encounter with a Nobel Laureate mentor
As a kid, JJ was always into sports, math and sciences–areas in which, as she grew up, she noticed fewer and fewer other girls participating. But she wasn’t discouraged by that.
JJ stuck to her strengths and joined her high school golf team as the only girl, which led her to meet her first formative mentor in college: her coach on the Harvard University golf team, who was from a business background. Her coach pushed the team to integrate clear goals into their sports practice, such as writing SMART goals about how many putts they would make–an exercise JJ engages in with her executive team today, twenty years later.
It was during her time at Harvard, playing golf and studying chemistry, that she started to gravitate toward the idea of a career in novel drug discovery. She was drawn to its inventiveness and the ability to bring a positive impact to something that really matters to people.
After graduating, she started her career at FibroGen, a science-based biopharmaceutical company discovering and developing a pipeline of first-in-class therapeutics. She decided to continue to build expertise, and pursued a PhD at Caltech in Chemical Biology.
It became clear to JJ that she wanted to be a founder. But first, she thought it would be strategic to cross the chasm to venture before becoming an entrepreneur herself, as it would allow her to better understand what investors look for in biotech innovation. To accomplish this, she reached out to Nobel laureate David Baltimore–Caltech’s president emeritus, who was an advisor at The Column Group, a biotech venture capital firm. It was unbeknownst to her at the time what a key role David would come to play in her journey.
Within a few fast years, JJ rose to partner at The Column Group and engaged in a short stint launching Tenaya Therapeutics as president, which proved to JJ the strength of her own scientist-founder inclinations.
Then, David Baltimore introduced her to her scientific co-founders and suggested that she take on the role of CEO. This would become Appia Bio, a biotech company developing allogeneic cell therapies from hematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cells (HSCs). It was an incredible opportunity: meeting JJ’s passion for this important problem space with an exciting leadership challenge and brain trust of scientists she admired, many of whom got their start at Caltech, too.
What the near future of cancer cell therapy treatments might look like
The core technology behind Appia Bio was originally invented in David Baltimore’s lab by the scientist and academic Lili Yang, and later expanded upon in Lili’s independent lab at UCLA.
JJ explains, “Originally, when Lili was a student, she arrived at the initial insight to modify a mouse stem cell and then put it back into the mouse to mature. Which obviously you can’t do for scalable human drug development. So now, we take a human hematopoietic stem cell, and she has developed the process to get it to a matured T cell ex vivo fully on plastic.”
When JJ started Appia Bio, the team continued to refine the technology, and are building toward the ambitious goal of developing off-the-shelf cell therapies based on HSCs, while also developing the company’s platform dubbed ACUA, which allows for the programming of stem cells to become invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a powerful subtype of a T cell.
Unlike current solutions, Appia Bio aims ultimately to solve for key pain points, including deploying multiple mechanisms of cancer cell targeting to prevent relapse, improving the odds of cell therapy working in solid tumors, and addressing the barrier of access by mass-producing a cell therapy product that can be dosed to thousands of cancer patients out of a single manufacturing run.
In 2021, Appia Bio launched with $52M in Series A funding led by 8VC Partners, with support from Two Sigma Ventures, Sherpa Healthcare Partners and Freeflow Ventures.*
Dusan Perovic, Partner at Two Sigma Ventures who acted as our lead investor for Appia Bio’s Series A, notes, “There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that cell therapies offer reliable responses to certain subsets of cancer patients. In science meetings, increasingly, we hear oncologists even refer to cell therapies as cures for those patients. What’s incredibly exciting is that the technology the Appia team is building has the potential to allow more patients to obtain durable responses, while at the same time lowering the costs of treatment”.
Building a biotech company in light of market headwinds, and cultivating a culture of scientific excellence
Early on, JJ helped execute a corporate partnership with Kite-Gilead, which provides for Appia Bio to handle preclinical and early clinical research, and Kite to lead later development, manufacturing and commercialization.
Now faced with headwinds to biotech markets around the world, JJ feels fortunate to have completed this deal, as she believes the capital efficiency it provides can enable Appia Bio to continue to move forward at full speed.
“For early biotech founders, commercialization is so far ahead and beyond the core focus of what we are working on: research and development, from early stage discovery to clinical proof-of-concept. But once you have that, especially in cell therapy, the accelerator is pedal to the metal in getting it to patients. Now we can really focus on validating our programs and platform, while knowing that when we’re ready, Kite can continue scaling and delivering to patients at speed. This partnership allows us not to accelerate into a dead end. Instead, we know that there’s a ‘there’ there to get it to patients.”
She believes corporate partnerships are a key pillar in effectively commercializing innovation more broadly, enabling early scientific startups to focus on what they do best: pursue scientific excellence and generate novel solutions.
Appia Bio’s scientific founders and advisory board set a high bar for scientific excellence. How do they sustain and foster it among the broader team?
For JJ, the answer is two-fold:
“Scientific excellence becomes a self-enforcing principle among our scientists here. They want to live up to the example set by our founders and advisory board, and to personally represent and further scientific innovation in a problem space we all care deeply about.”
We can’t wait to see how JJ and the team continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible for drug discovery innovation.