The VIC Fellows Program provides an opportunity for individuals with relevant expertise and interest to learn how to identify and evaluate promising innovation from global sources. We are pleased to highlight the members of the 2021-2022 class of Fellows in our ongoing series of interviews, such as this recent discussion with Kelly Mabry, PhD.
Please tell us about your educational and professional background.
I always had strong interests in science and technology and declared a chemical engineering major, as a freshman at Cornell University, before I could possibly have known where that would take me. The instructors and coursework were highly engaging, and I am thankful that my engineering background has opened so many doors. Nonetheless, after my early exposure to process engineering and my co-op experience at Merck, I knew I wanted to purse an innovation-focused career and decided to pursue a PhD.
For graduate school, I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder to work with Kristi Anseth, one of the leaders in the biomaterials field. In my thesis work, I designed biomimetic materials systems for in vitro study of heart valve cells. Leveraging these more realistic cell growth conditions, we explored using high-throughput imaging techniques and bioinformatics approaches to characterize the healthy and disease state of the cells.
Coming out of graduate school, I began working with a scientist-entrepreneur with a similar technical background at a very early-stage contact lens startup, Tangible Science. Working at an early-stage medical device company afforded me the opportunity to take on a wide range of roles in areas such as research, product development, clinical studies, and regulatory strategy. This was required to take products from an initial concept through to commercialization with our small, focused team. I would highly recommend joining an early-stage medical device startup to other early-career scientists and engineers, as it has been a great education in entrepreneurship, and I have enjoyed wearing many different hats.
What prompted you to apply for the VIC Fellows program?
I applied for the VIC Fellows program last year because I wanted to learn more about the early stages of identifying unmet medical needs and evaluating market viability and develop a better understanding of the financial side of bringing innovative technologies to market. I was also drawn to VIC’s broad interests across the spectrum of life science technologies and the opportunity to learn about many different innovations across fields.
Given your experience in biotechnology, how has it influenced your perspective as a VIC Fellow?
My industry experience has helped me to appreciate the VIC approach to early-stage development of life science technologies. When pursuing these high-risk, but potentially groundbreaking new products, keeping the team small and utilizing resources carefully can make the difference between being able to bring a new product to market and indefinite languishing because the technology has not been sufficiently de-risked to raise the money required for the type of infrastructure that would be found at a large company. When I’ve met doctors using the products we’ve developed at Tangible Science, they are typically shocked to learn what a small team we are, but I think with the right team, it’s possible to really drive advances on a lean budget.
Another lesson that I have learned is that it is a non-trivial task to take something that works in a research setting and make it sufficiently robust that it can be reliably carried out by others. At Tangible, we found that to scale our contact lens coating process to the dozens of contact lens manufacturers across the world, we had to help them rethink their existing manufacturing processes, which brought many unexpected challenges, like needing to rebuild their plasma chambers and pumps, so that their patients could benefit from our technology. Later we decided to put our coating process directly in the hands of patients so they could maintain lens performance at home. There were a whole new set of challenges to consider about the usability of the product in a consumer setting. This experience has shaped how I assess potential markets for new technologies and create a plan for translating a given technology into a device that will meet specific patient needs.
What trends are you seeing in the Bay Area in the life science industry as well as the investor groups active in this sector?
There is an incredible amount of innovation occurring in small start-ups, and it’s exciting to live somewhere with so many people active in life science entrepreneurship. Recently, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the life science industry in the Bay Area and throughout the world. Some of these impacts were short-term, as companies evaluated whether they could switch gears and devote their efforts to research, development, and manufacturing to support the battle against COVID-19. Other changes, I believe, will continue to impact the industry for many years, such as a renewed interest in vaccines and anti-virals and the rapid development of new diagnostics, including many new approaches to point-of-care and at-home diagnostics.
Which subcategories of life science technologies and therapeutic areas are you most interested in and why?
I am most excited by technologies that exploit mechanistic understanding of human cellular biology and combine it with novel therapeutic or diagnostic approaches. In many ways, I continue to focus on the reductionist approach so thoroughly embedded in the biomaterials research community. In biomaterials systems, exquisite efforts are made to control the cellular environment to better understand or direct cell behavior. At times, it can be frustrating that so much effort is required to recapitulate a phenomenon that occurs effortlessly in vivo, but this systems approach works when guided by strong scientific understanding. I want to develop therapies and diagnostic devices that are not derivative extensions of existing approaches, but instead, exploit fundamental understanding to alter biology in a way that is dramatically more beneficial to the patient or describes a disease state more effectively than was previously possible.
Which aspects of the Fellows program have been most important for your professional development and career growth?
I’ve gained a much better understanding of pharmaceutical development and the associated hurdles from my VIC colleagues. It is incredible to be exposed to such a wide breadth of the life science industry in such a short amount of time. The hands-on experience of working through the due diligence process for new technologies and creating a plan for how to drive that technology to the market has been extremely valuable for my professional development. My previous experience has always been more research- and product-development-oriented, so it has also been valuable to learn how to view technologies through the investor lens.
Would you recommend the Fellows program to others and why?
Yes, what could be more fun than getting to learn about technologies that some of the most brilliant people in the world have devoted their careers to developing?
The Fellows program is such a great opportunity to learn from people who have extensive experience in bringing new technologies to market as well as from the innovators who have developed technologies we evaluate. The ability to take an innovation and translate it into a product that reaches patients is not something you can learn how to do unless you take an active role in the process, and the Fellows program provides those opportunities.
What attributes should prospective applicants have to thrive as a VIC Fellow?
I think the most important attribute is the desire to learn. The Fellows program provides so many opportunities to learn about bringing new technologies to market. It has been very rewarding to work with my colleagues at VIC, who have so much experience and insight into life science entrepreneurship, in areas ranging from technology and market evaluation and efficient de-risking of technology to preclinical and clinical product development. It has also been a unique opportunity to learn about the latest life science research coming out of universities.