When Armon Sharei was a chemical engineering PhD student at MIT in 2008, he joined a team toiling to transfer compounds into living cells--a difficult task, but one that could help scientists research diseases or discover new drugs.
Their initial method used a miniature gun to shoot compounds into cells, but it didn't immediately work. When Sharei jammed the gun's tiny nozzle up against a cell as much as possible, he then observed compounds pass through. But he turned the gun off when he saw that changes in its intensity were not having an effect on the transmission. That's how he and his team realized it was the gun inadvertently squeezing a cell--not shooting into it--that briefly altered its membrane and allowed something to enter.
Voilà! The squeeze system Sharei then designed to temporarily disrupt cell membranes--for which he's been granted most of his 10 patents--is the basis for SQZ Biotech, the company he co-founded in 2013 with the pioneering MIT professors he worked for: Klavs Jensen, the school's head of chemical engineering, and Robert Langer, a renowned bioengineer and serial entrepreneur.
At first, Sharei and his co-founders planned to license the SQZ (pronounced "squeeze") technology to universities and hospitals for research, but they changed direction when they realized it could potentially be used for a powerful purpose: to engineer different living cells to hopefully help fight diseases like cancer. The squeeze mechanism Sharei and his colleagues came up with could also be more effective than other existing ways of getting materials into cells, he says, because it works for more types of cells and materials, and presents fewer risks.
"Our goal is really to become the foundation of a whole generation of cell-based therapies," says Sharei. "The most powerful machines in your body are your cells."
Scientific American featured SQZ as one of the Top 10 World Changing Ideas of 2014. Last year, Fierce Biotech ranked it as one of the top 15 biotech companies poised to change the world.
SQZ raised $1 million in seed funding from angel investors in 2014, followed the next year by $5 million in venture money from Polaris Partners, 20/20 HealthCare Partners, and two private offices.
In December, SQZ partnered with global pharma firm and cancer treatment leader F. Hoffmann-La Roche in a deal that could be worth $500 million or more--a large undisclosed upfront payment, and additional sums when SQZ meets certain milestones--to speed up the development of its technology specifically to inject a person's immune cells with a protein to activate a "killer T" cell response to fight off cancer. SQZ will also get a royalty from Roche on sales of future products.
Currently SQZ is developing its technology further using mouse models and human blood experiments to understand its mechanisms of action more fully. After that, in perhaps two years, Sharei says, it could be used in human clinical cancer trials. Sharei says he is actively discussing partnerships with more drug companies to develop more ways to engineer cells to fight disease, but he declined to identify which drug companies or which diseases. SQZ holds a worldwide exclusive license to its technology from MIT.
Though Sharei was born in Walnut Creek, California, he grew up in Tehran, Iran, and attended three years of high school in Dubai, before moving back to California, and then going to Stanford for college. As a grad student at MIT, he thought he'd go on to become a professor. But it turned out starting a company could be the best way to pursue developing the cell technology he stumbled on.
With a biotech startup, it may seem the potential is all in the science, but investor Amy Schulman, a venture capital partner at Polaris Partners, which led SQZ's $5 million funding round, says the main reason she decided to put money in SQZ is because of Sharei, even though he's young and had never started a company before.
"For somebody as smart as he is, he's really humble and he's eager to learn," says Schulman, a former Pfizer exec who is also the executive chair of the SQZ board. "Armon is the anchor."