VIC Fellows Spotlight: Peter Sykora, PhD


The VIC Fellows Program provides an opportunity for individuals with relevant expertise and interest to learn how to identify and evaluate promising innovations from global sources. We are pleased to highlight the members of the 2023-2024 class of Fellows in our ongoing series of interviews, such as this recent discussion with Peter Sykora, PhD.

Please tell us a little bit about your background.


My entire career has focused on the molecular impact of DNA damage and repair on cellular systems. While this might seem like a very narrow focus it has had broad applications. My Honors and PhD candidature centered on the impact of toxic heavy metals on DNA repair systems to determine why people who drank contaminated well water developed a unique profile of cancers over time. Cancer is most often associated with aging biological systems. As a post-doctoral fellow at the national institute of aging (NIA), I investigated the correlation between DNA damage and aging. After years of research, I completed a series of projects that culminated in the creation of a better mouse model of human Alzheimer's disease. Part of this research was the development of novel biological assays to measure the kinetics of DNA damage and repair. Using this knowledge, I took a faculty position at the Mitchell cancer institute. First line cancer treatments induce DNA damage and my research focused on the novel combinational chemotherapeutic strategies (synthetic lethality) and also emerging genome engineering methods. All widely used genetic engineering methods utilize DNA damage and repair to create genomic changes. In 2017, I became an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, running courses on DNA damage as a therapeutic tool and also the aging and cutting-edge application of genetic engineering technology. I am currently director and CSO of Amelia technologies LLC, a biotechnology company out of Washington DC that is looking at different approaches to mitigate the photodamage caused by sun exposure.

How have your experiences in government, industry, and academia shaped your approach to research and leadership?

The three sectors have unique limiting factors. How science is done, how it is communicated and what is expected from researchers is very different between the sectors. An example of this is the way R&D is approached in each sector. In government, all lab work is generally set-out step by step by heavily vetted SOPs because the outcome of the experiments can have serious legal and market implications for third parties being tested. Academic research labs generally have little oversight in experimental design (unless animal or human subjects are involved). There is no or little QC and experiments are conducted to satisfy publication requirements. Industrial or commercial labs can operate anywhere along this spectrum, dependent on the maturity and size of the company. Small start-ups operate like academic research labs and pharma behemoths functioning under strict guidelines for QC and product development conforming to government issued standards. From a leadership perspective, the fundamentals, however, remain the same, the composition of your team goes a long way in determining your chance of success. Any gap in expertise will need to be identified and filled and the more gaps there are the more time will fall on you to find creative ways of solving the problems. This is where a well crafted scientific advisory board used in industry and government primiairly, can be a huge help.

What's your approach to teaching genome engineering and emerging technologies and how do you apply your real-world experiences in the classroom?

I have a huge advantage in that the subjects I teach have a direct, tangible, and immediate impact on society. I leverage this to maintain and build interest in the lecture content. Every class begins with an overview of what has come out in the news last week about the technology/ approach. This can be a novel chemotherapeutic that has just passed Phase III clinical trials or a new delivery method for therapeutics associated with genome engineering. We then talk about the background that went into the discovery and what it means to the field. By doing this the students see that what they are learning is important beyond the classroom walls and builds a better perspective about what career opportunities are out there.

As the Director and CSO at Amelia Technologies, what are the main challenges you've faced in leading a startup in the biotech field?

The major challenge in leading a start-up in any field is to make sure that the project timeline and your financial runway match. This is far from trivial and requires time/cost estimations for which there are no previous examples. Adding excessive time contingencies to complete an experiment can also cripple a start-up where competitive advantage may play a major role in determining the market feasibility of an emerging technology. As with any start-up in biotech, a huge burden is put on the CSO, they are expected to design and develop experimental plans, write up reports, prepare contingencies and ensure milestones are met. Maintaining strict milestones and being aware of project creep that is not factor for, are also significant issues that biotech start-ups need to be aware of.

As a scientific advisor to biotech companies, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs entering the industry?

I often interact with early entrepreneurs who come from academia. As such they often have an inflated perspectives about the value of their idea. The best idea is still worthless if there is no market. Getting familiar early with competitive landscape analysis, intellectual property, and common funding pathways particularly what can be expected when looking at dilutive funding is paramount for success.

What made you decide to become a VIC Fellow?

I had interacted with venture funds previously, being a content expert and consultant. But I was interested in seeing the inner working of a small venture fund. I was particularly interested in seeing the strategy in picking new technologies and how this was managed. The step going from technology acquisition to start-up formation and maturation was something I wanted to learn more about. Being a VIC fellow was a perfect opportunity for me because it wasn’t just a learning exercise but I can follow the progress of real biotech start-ups as they mature.

What are your goals for participating in the Fellows program?

Foremost a better understanding of the venture ecosystem. I am endeavoring to come out of the program with a better understanding of funding acquisition and intellectual property analytics. Further, I am particularly interested in opportunity assessment and developing ways of improving the success rate for VCs by using more focused approaches in conjunction with AI-derived analytics.

Learn more about the VIC Fellows Program