The formalized mentor program, which recently welcomed three new members, gives Wyss technology development teams access to diverse industry professionals who provide advice, contacts, and experience
By Jessica Leff
Many startups fail, but one of the greatest predictors of success is experience. Reading books and articles simply cannot replace practical knowledge about specific situations to expect and pitfalls to avoid. But what if a founder with an amazing product has no experience running a company? They can turn to someone who does: a mentor. Seventy percent of small business owners that received mentoring survived for five years or more, which was double the rate of those who were not mentored. So, the Wyss Mentor Hive was established in 2021 to offer our researchers access to mentors at all stages of their work, and has since added new members with more areas of expertise.
The Wyss Mentor Hive
Displaying a strong commitment to the Wyss’ scientific entrepreneurs, members of the Mentor Hive work closely with innovative teams to help them achieve their goals of startup formation and technology commercialization. Oluwaseun (Seun) Araromi, Ph.D., a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss who is developing MyoExo, a Parkinson’s Disease sensor, explains, “The Wyss is a great place, with some wonderfully knowledgeable people, but it’s unrealistic to have people with subject matter experience in every project domain on staff full-time. The Mentor Hive helps to bridge that gap.”
Since the program’s beginning, Marnie Hoolahan, M.B.A., Emilia Javorsky, M.D., Neal Muni, M.D., MSPH, Steve Rosen, Ph.D., and Hank Wu have generously shared their time, knowledge, and guidance with researchers.
Wyss Business Development Director and leader of the Mentor Hive, Ally Chang, Ph.D., M.B.A., explains, “Mentors are part of the Wyss community who participate in Wyss events and connect the Wyss to the broader ecosystem.”
New bees in the Mentor Hive
To keep up with the Wyss’ expanded interests in the healthcare and sustainability sectors, there also was a need to expand the Mentor Hive “colony.”
In the spring of 2022, Priya Yadav, Vice President of Investments at MassVentures with a focus on clean energy and tech innovation, joined the Mentor Hive. Yadav has a passion for imparting her wisdom – she teaches Business Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and is a Business Mentor at EforAll’s Roxbury startup accelerator program.
September saw the addition of two more mentors: Jackie Lemaitre, M.B.A. and Mouris Saghir, Ph.D. Lemaitre is the Vice President of Market Development at Torus Biosciences, a Wyss startup, where she leads their commercial strategy. She has over a decade of life sciences experience working to commercialize novel, innovative medical devices and diagnostics.
Saghir is the Vice President and General Manager of Quest Diagnostics’ Cardiovascular, Metabolic & Endocrinology Clinical Franchise, where he directs efforts to advance diagnostic innovations at the largest laboratory diagnostics company in the world. Prior to his time at Quest, he spent more than a decade at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, serving in positions of increasing responsibility in payer brand marketing, portfolio and decision analysis, global and US marketing for CV and oncology.
Busy bees: what the mentors have been doing
The existing mentors have been hard at work, contributing in a multitude of ways to life at the Wyss. They participated in Validation Project proposal reviews, where they played an important part in selecting the 2022-2023 projects that received funding, business development support, and an array of resources to help the teams work towards commercializing their technologies.
Over the summer, mentors participated in the annual Business Blueprint seminar series, which was specifically designed to help Validation Project teams start thinking about how to reach their goals and maximize their success.
Perhaps most important, mentors met with individual teams to discuss their technologies and provide valuable feedback. In turn, learning how cutting-edge science can potentially tackle today’s biggest problems is an enriching experience for the mentors, who thoroughly enjoy being part of this new initiative.
Muni reflects, “I see the impact of my feedback being applied and helping them to move forward with their goals. It drives my faith that many of the challenges that face us can be addressed by great science, dedication, and hard work, which I see every day at the Wyss.”
Sweet as honey: what the mentors provide
Technology development teams have benefited greatly from their interactions with mentors since the program started. Researchers seek an industry perspective that might be hard to come by otherwise. Yang (Claire) Zeng, M.D., Ph.D., an instructor in medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Kevin Emancipator, an M.B.A. candidate at Harvard Business School, who are developing DoriVac, a therapeutic DNA origami vaccine, explained that Muni’s experience taking therapeutic companies from their early stages through FDA approval has been incredibly useful. They’ve also sought help from Mentor Hive member Rosen. “He has deep expertise in pharmaceutical business development and has offered us insights into how pharma partners may evaluate our technology and how we may think about creating shared value through partnerships.”
Mentors are also able forge valuable connections for researchers. Muni connected Jeff Way, Ph.D., a lecturer in at Harvard Medical School who is co-leading a Validation Project team developing a therapeutic for pancreatitis, with regulatory consultants to propel their project forward towards clinical trials.
Researcher Araromi explains that Mentor Hive member Wu has provided so much guidance, it’s hard to narrow down to the most important so far. “It would probably be a tie between the following two: Stop trying to do ‘cosmology.’ It can be tempting at the beginning to try and come up with one theory that explains all of your data, ‘a theory of everything.’ The second is that Hank suggested a change to our clinical study protocol that caused us to record data during a really important part of the study. This was a blind spot for us, and we could have missed the opportunity had he not given us this advice.”
Eager to cross-pollinate: new mentors excited to get started
The newest mentors can’t wait to be part of the technology development pipeline at the Wyss. Yadav has already hit the ground running. Though she was familiar with the Institute from her work at MassVentures, she was pleasantly surprised to see the focus on sustainability in addition to healthcare. “The innovation happening at the Wyss is very critical to humanity in so many ways.”
However, she’s just getting started. “I have a lot to offer teams at the Wyss who are brilliant on the technology front, but to commercialize technology they need the help of a business leader. Be proactive and reach out.”
Lemaitre is excited for “the exposure to the future. It’s what is next. What is possible.” At the same time, she wants to assist Wyss researchers in reaching their goals. It’s easy for scientists to become laser-focused on creating cutting-edge technologies and lose perspective on market trends, regulations, and other business issues. To Lemaitre, that’s where the mentors can play a valuable role, helping teams avoid potential pitfalls.
According to Saghir, “most biomedical decisions depend on diagnostics.” So, he’s enthusiastic about helping young entrepreneurs to bring innovations to end-users to improve healthcare. “To me, being a scientific entrepreneur is really unique. It’s bridging the science to the market. It’s being really scientifically savvy and being able to take the data you have and not only synthesize it for the science, but also for what the environmental needs are.”
Mentorship is invaluable
There is a lot involved in translating technology out of the lab and commercializing it into a product that can have a near-term positive impact. Mentors can help by sharing their experience, connections, and advice. They can act as a sounding board and important support system as early career scientists, especially entrepreneurs, find their way.
“You’re going to have questions when you’re trying to commercialize something,” says Lemaitre. “Just knowing that someone has your back, and if that someone doesn’t have the answer, they have a whole network of people that they can call upon who might know the answer is like a safety blanket. Technologies at the Wyss are like birds in the nest, and the mentors are like the parents helping them learn to spread their wings and fly.”