Q&A with CombImmune’s co-founder

10Jason Yonehiro is a co-founder of CombImmune, a Stanford University startup that hopes to develop immunotherapies and diagnostics for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Jason comes from a sales and marketing background, with prior experience at Amgen, Celgene, Boehringer Ingelheim, and more. I spoke with him about his experiences as a first-time biotech entrepreneur.


Gene Kym: What can aspiring entrepreneurs do now to prepare for starting a company one day?

Jason Yonehiro: Really understand your technology and know if it has merit in the real world. Young science entrepreneurs who have spent their entire career sheltered in a lab don’t really understand how the biotechnology industry works. It’s important to “get out of the building,” as Steve Blank says, and find those potential customers to help validate your idea.

GK: Can you give some detailed pointers as to how academic scientists can do this?

JY: As a budding entrepreneur there are so many unknown unknowns, so the more you can validate your product against an existing pain point in the market, the better you’ll be prepared. This includes speaking with your advisors, attending careers fairs, reading industry news and publications, attending conferences, etc.  Heck, create your own meet up.

GK: How did you prepare yourself?

JY: I spent 10-plus years in industry doing drug sales and marketing. This gave me an understanding of the business aspects from the provider, payor, marketing and patient sides.  However, I’m continuously learning the other side of biotechnology: drug discovery, development, CMC, regulatory, etc. You can’t understand everything to a granular level, but you need basic knowledge of the steps in the process and how to sync those up with your company vision.

Get comfortable seeking advice from your network. I reached out to my oncology contacts to get their feedback and overall impression of our diagnostic tool. I was able to assess their concerns and work them into our overall strategy.

GK: Have you pivoted? Can you give an example of how a biotech startup might pivot?

JY: Not yet. A pivot in biotechnology could take a year to accomplish. We have refreshed our idea and are focusing on commercializing our diagnostic technology first. We hope to leverage this to provide revenue for future R&D.

Galena Biopharma is an example of a biotech pivot. They refreshed their business model to include a break out pain medication for oncology. This will be an early revenue driver for the company to help focus internal development for their NeuVax product in breast cancer.

GK: Can you explain what the Two-Gene Score is?

JY: The Two-Gene Score, or TGS, is diagnostic based on the expression levels of the LMO2 and CD137 genes. It’s a prognostic diagnostic that predicts overall survival and drug response in diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. TGS was validated in nearly 700 patients retrospectively. It will allow physicians to separate low-risk and high-risk patients. This way, low-risk patients will not have to undergo arduous treatment regimens like bone marrow transplant. Current risk assessment technologies are over 20 years old and are not as accurate as ours.

GK: Any advice for licensing technology from a university? Can you tell us about your first tech transfer experience?

JY: Familiarize yourself with the Association of University Technology Managers and their principles. In essense, the tech transfer office’s goal is to get technology out of the university and into the public. They want to put it into the right team’s hands, so the technology has the greatest impact for public good.

Building a relationship with university tech transfer offices is indispensable for any new entrepreneur in this field. Use your network for introductions. In our case, my cofounder, Stanford professor Holbrook Kohrt, gave me the name of the attorney who was prosecuting the patent for TGS. I called her and told her what I was looking for. She referred me to the tech transfer office associate at Stanford. You have to be proactive, inquiring and patient. Things don’t happen overnight. It took nearly a year to execute the full license.

Gene Kym