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Biological Chemistry

After launching 7 companies in 12 years, Carolyn Bertozzi says she’s not slowing down

Prolific biotech business founder says she’s always on the lookout for problem-solving opportunities

by Kerri Jansen
March 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 9

09809-feature7-bertozzi.jpg
Credit: Laura Morton
09809-feature7-bertozzi.jpg
Credit: Laura Morton

Carolyn Bertozzi is an authoritative force in biotechnology. The Stanford University chemical biologist has cofounded seven biotech companies in a dozen years, the milestones of which have often been featured in C&EN. The ventures encompass a wide range of applications, all rooted in Bertozzi’s extensive knowledge of modifying sugar structures. Palleon Pharmaceuticals, for example, is developing cancer immunotherapies that snip away glycans—chains of sugar molecules—from the surfaces of tumor cells, allowing the immune system to see and respond to cancer.

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Vitals

Academic title: Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University

Companies: Lycia Therapeutics, founded in 2019; OliLux Biosciences, founded in 2019; Grace Science, founded in 2018; InterVenn Biosciences, founded in 2017; Palleon Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2015; Enable Biosciences, founded in 2014; and Redwood Bioscience, founded in 2008 (acquired by Catalent Pharma Solutions in 2014)

Most recent funding: Unavailable (her latest company is in stealth mode)

But Bertozzi didn’t always expect to have feet in both academia and industry. In the early days of her scientific career, she says, she counted on outside companies to commercialize promising technologies from her lab. That changed after one of her grad students at the University of California, Berkeley, shared his aspiration to start a company and asked for her guidance in selecting a project. The technology they identified—a technique for precisely modifying proteins at certain sites in their structures—would form the basis of Redwood Bioscience, launched in 2008. Although Bertozzi describes the process as an uphill battle, launching Redwood was transformative, she says.

“It’s a very different experience when you get directly involved and make sure it gets done right and that people follow through,” she says. “It was very rewarding.”

Redwood was just the beginning. A few years later, Bertozzi introduced disease-detection firm Enable Biosciences, followed by five more companies after her move to Stanford in 2015. And though each company’s story is unique, Bertozzi says her approach to choosing which technologies to commercialize has been consistent.

“I’m just always kind of on the lookout,” she says. “I have my eyes tuned for problems that people are not able to solve and medicines that don’t work well and patients for whom there is no good medicine.”

As her roster of companies expands, Bertozzi says she sees potential for the companies to begin to work together. And she’s eyeing even more opportunities to spin technologies from her lab into new companies.

“There will definitely be more,” she says.

What’s your advice for new entrepreneurs?

"You want investors who not only can finance your company adequately but are going to work with you as a partner and have a real stake in it and help you recruit good people, help you make good decisions, help you tap into their network of experts and knowledge. And that’s more important than just how much money you’re raising."

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