BioBoss

#12 - Sven Karlsson: Co-Founder of Platelet BioGenesis

October 31, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
BioBoss
#12 - Sven Karlsson: Co-Founder of Platelet BioGenesis
Chapters
BioBoss
#12 - Sven Karlsson: Co-Founder of Platelet BioGenesis
Oct 31, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12

"Originally, I really thought about hiring people to do a list of activities and now I try to really think about hiring people to develop that list of activities to solve a problem" - Sven Karlsson, Co-Founder of Platelet BioGenesis


Show Notes Transcript

"Originally, I really thought about hiring people to do a list of activities and now I try to really think about hiring people to develop that list of activities to solve a problem" - Sven Karlsson, Co-Founder of Platelet BioGenesis


Sven Karlsson:

Originally, I really thought about hiring people to do a list of activities. And now I try to really think about hiring people to develop that list of activities to solve a problem.

John Simboli:

That's the voice of Sven Karlsson, co-founder of Platelet BioGenesis. Listen in now to hear the conversation I recently had with Sven at his office in Cambridge. I'm John Simboli. You're listening to BioBoss. This morning I'm in Cambridge with Sven Karlsson, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Platelet BioGenesis. Sven, how did you find yourself here at Platelet BioGenesis?

Sven Karlsson:

Good morning, John. My background is not as a scientist, it's not in biotech. This is actually my first biotech company I've been at. So it's probably a little bit of a different story from what a lot of the other guests you've had on your show have talked about. My background initially was in finance. So I worked at JP Morgan for a number of years dealing with very, very large M&A transactions. I went back to business school , following that found myself at a hedge fund for about a year. And from there eventually moved into the venture world. And so I h ave this progression of going from very large companies, large transactions to mi dsize c ompanies to very small companies on the venture side and then after about a year or so of working on the venture side, I decided I really wanted to start a company. And I think like a lot of people coming, some from the business finance background, I pretty quickly realized that I didn't have any product ski llsets, r ight? I had a lot of overhead, but it's hard to start a company just on overhead. And so it was about that time I started looking around and thinking about what things was I interested in do ing with the next stage of my career. Initially, I was working on a clean energy venture. So I looked at a lot of companies in that space and while I thought that was very interesting, there are also a lot of structural challenges with that industry. And along the same theme of wanting to do something useful or productive with my life, the other area I started looking at a lot was on the biotech side and started doing a lot of exploratory work, networking on that side and eventually met my two co-founders, J on athan Thon and Joe Italiano. So Jonathan and Joe had invented this awesome technology and their lab at Harvard where essentially they could make platelets from STEM cells and they were interested in spinning it out into a company. And we pretty quickly realized that we had very, very different and very complementary skill sets where they had this amazing technology but had never been on the business commercial side of it. And I was really coming from the other direction where I had done the venture work. I understood what that process was like—what those transactions, documentation, fundraising, business plans, all that stuff was about, and so after about six months of working together, we pretty quickly realized that we worked really well together. We could argue with each other really productively, which I think is pretty critical early on. And so we decided to start Platelet BioGenesis.

John Simboli:

Of all the things that you could have started, how was it you came to realize this was the right thing?

Sven Karlsson:

I think there were a couple aspects to it. A part of it really was the vision of my co-founders and their deep expertise in the area, but also their exceptionally large ambition for what this could become. I found that really attractive as opposed to a lot of the other stories I was looking at were sort of a "me t oo" product or a quick flip. And really this was an opportunity where we could build something really, really significant and big and part of i t was really understanding as I dug into understanding the problem platelets, it got me really excited about trying to make a solution that could impact literally millions of people just in the U.S. every year. And certainly as we look outside the U.S., tens of millions of people every year.

John Simboli:

What were you hoping to achieve here that you thought could not be done at another company?

Sven Karlsson:

I think there are two things really, or two tracks that I can think of to answer that question. One is the the company side, which five years ago when we started this company, everybody told us that making platelets at scale was going to be totally impossible. And so nobody really believed that. Cell therapy was still very challenged back then. Now it's a little bit more exciting, a little bit sexier, but back then everybody was telling us this was impossible. And so really the only way that we thought to logically progress it was to start a company. And also personally, looking at the people in a similar operating, COO type role, I would've had to spend 20 years of my career leading up to be in this position, right? Nobody w ould've hired me back then to do this job. And so if I wanted to skip t hose 10-20 years of, of le g wo rk, this was the best way to do it.

John Simboli:

How do you answer when someone says, "What do you do for a living?"

Sven Karlsson:

I usually say we make platelets and then people either know what a platelet is and we go down that track or they say what's a platelet? And I describe, high level, what that is. What I describe, internally my job is, myself and my exceptional team here, our job is really to do all the things we can to let the scientists focus on doing the science, right? B ecause at the end of the day, if the science doesn't work, nothing else matters. And so the more things we can streamline and take off their plates and make their lives easy, enjoyable, so they can re ally s tay focused on that, that's the critical piece that we add.

John Simboli:

What have you learned about your management style, what works well for you?

Sven Karlsson:

When I think about hiring and management styles, I think something that I've shifted in the past several years was originally I really thought about hiring people to do a list of activities. And now I try to really think about hiring people to develop that list of activities to solve a problem, right? Because if you really get an exceptional person in that role, it's not a matter of just executing and crossing things off the list. It's thinking about what are all the other things I could add to the list, right? How do I, instead of executing on an activity, closing the books, whatever it is, how do I develop a process to make it a much more scalable, efficient activity. And so, along that same vein, my management style tends to be giving people larger problems. And pointing them in the right direction and giving them enough rope to go and solve that problem. The flip side being that they need to know that they can come back to me and tell me when I haven't given them enough direction or haven't given them enough tools to solve that problem effectively. So that's th e, the balance that I tr y t o find in my management style.

John Simboli:

Do you remember what it was when you were eight or nine years old that you wanted to be? Most of us wanted to be something. We had no idea what it was, but did you remember what that was? Does that have anything to do with what you're doing now?

Sven Karlsson:

Probably around that age, maybe a little bit younger. I wanted to be an engineer because that's what my father was. And I think about that age, I still thought engineers drove trains. So , maybe by the time I got to eight or nine I realized what engineers actually were. And probably through most of my teenage years, et cetera. I really expected to go down the engineering route, building buildings, bridges, that type of engineering. And then I got to college, f igured out I probably didn't want to be an engineer. I ended up studying operations research, so manufacturing engineering— how to make a supply chain as efficient as possible concept. Fi nished c ollege again, didn't know what I wanted to do. So I worked in finance for seven, eight years, which was interesting. Learned a lot from doing that and then started a biotech co mpany. So unlike some of the other shows I listened to where people kn ew f rom the time they were eight until the time they we re 6 0, exactly what they wanted to do and be a scientist, I had no idea then. I still hope that my next 10, 20, 30 years find me doing totally different things as well. I think one of the really interesting things that's happened since we started this company is, I studied manufacturing engineering, which has nothing really to do with biology, but at the end of the day, as a cell therapy company, what we're developing is a manufacturing process, right? We're taking STEM cells, we're differentiating them down the path to be megakaryocytes. We're taking those megakaryocytes, turning them into platelets, and then we're trying to scale all this up and think about how we get that end product to the patient. So in many ways, this actually has a lot of overlap with what I studied in undergrad, which is coincidental but also I think kind of fascinating

John Simboli:

Sven, what's new at Platelet BioGenesis?

Sven Karlsson:

There are lots of new things at Platelet BioGenesis. It's been a big, a big growth year for us. I think we started the year at less than 20 people and we're well over 30 at this point. So we're probably on track to have that double in size this year, which is very exciting. We brought on Sam Rasty , just a couple of months ago, as our new CEO , which is very exciting. It's really great to have somebody who's gone through this growth curve before to work very closely with myself and J onathan as we continue to grow the company. We recently closed a new financing round, w hich is going to give us enough capital for the next few years. And, more recently we signed a $56 million contract with BARDA, to help develop our p roduct, specifically around radiation countermeasures. Finally at the end of this year, w e a re going to be moving t o some new lab space in Watertown, which will give us the capacity to grow to 65-70 people over the next couple of years. So I really think this has been a year of putting all o f these key building blocks in place that are going to allow us to scale the company very, very quickly. And very, very efficiently over the next couple of years as we continue on our aggressive path to get to the clinic.

John Simboli:

What do you say when people ask who is Platelet BioGenesis?

Sven Karlsson:

Culturally here, our tagline is everyone makes the coffee, which we take very literally because we drink an awful lot of coffee here. But also I think it has grown to mean a lot more to myself and to the team where it really is this element of respect, leaving your ego at the door, no task is too small. At any growing startup there's always a lot of things that people have to do. And somebody coming in here with a mentality of that's not my job or I shouldn't be doing that, is certainly not going to fit here. So I think, when I think, culturally about the company, I think people have a lot of fun and people are very respectful of each other and everybody's willing to chip in and help out as needed.

John Simboli:

When I walked in, everybody was like, Hey, how are you? A lot of times you go into a new environment, people will kind of . . .

Sven Karlsson:

I think one of the things that's very different here from a lot of other quickly growing biotech companies in the Cambridge area, at least in the past five, 10 years, is we really grew up through this founder-led mentality where we did the small friends and family round, then the angel round, we got some grants from the Mass Life Sciences Center, the NIH, e t c etera. Then we did o ur first venture round. Recently we did our second venture round. And so i t's been this much more scrappy startup mentality where everybody's been sacrificing and doing a lot with very little and everybody, initially, had to take on 10 jobs and then we call it giving away your Legos. So every time you give away one of your jobs and we hire somebody else to that job, that's giving away one of your Legos. But you end up with a very different culture through that shared sacrifice process as opposed to starting a company with $50 million on day one and then hiring 50 people into very defined roles in an org chart. So it's just a very different growth curve to go through. And I think it has ended up with a very fun culture through doing that.

John Simboli:

Sven, when people hear the Platelet BioGenesis story, what do they get right? What do they get wrong and the part they get wrong, how do you help them better understand where they misunderstood?

Sven Karlsson:

I think the most challenging piece in our story to communicate is really the significant breadth of the platelet platform that we're creating, right? The first product that we're looking to create, as we call it a standard platelet or donor independent platelet, which is essentially replacing donated platelets which are used following major trauma surgery , chemotherapy. People just get standard platelet transfusions. There's a huge need for them. Donor platelets expire after five days , you spend two days screening them. And so there's constantly these platelet shortages and I think that's a very tangible and pretty straightforward story for folks to understand. Where it gets a little bit more confusing is really all the other things we can do with these platelets once we've created them, right? They circulate throughout your entire body. They touch every major organ, they're best known as the cells in your blood that stop you from bleeding. But the other major role that they play in your body is they're one of your natural transport vehicles. So they're picking up different factors, antibodies, cytokines from one location in your body and then very intentionally delivering them to another location. And so if we can essentially hijack that transfer network, then we can use these cells to deliver, theoretically, whatever, wherever you want. Now going after diseases that involve a lot of inflammation are the easiest things for us. Fortunately most diseases involve a lot of inflammation. The potential of taking a cell that should be in your body, but being able to take things out from the inside and replace it with whatever you want and then also put things on the surface to direct these cells wherever you want is a pretty, incredibly powerful tool. When you think about the , the numerous different things that you could do with that, then even beyond that, once we're creating these platelets or these megakaryocytes, we're basically creating a very standardized sterile basket of growth factors, right ? And people use platelet lysate today for all sorts of different things, for dry eye, for cosmetics, for cell culture media, all sorts of things. And essentially we're creating a source that has essentially no inter-batch variability and is totally sterile. And so all these other applications—diabetic wound healing, et cetera, become things that we can go after just through this basket of growth factors that we're creating. So I think where people struggle to understand the story is just all the different things that we could potentially go after. Now, of course, we can't do them all at the same time and we're not doing them all today, but people usually gleam onto one of these things and understand that piece and get excited about that piece and forget about all the other things that we could potentially be doing down the road.

John Simboli:

When someone picks that one particular thing that their filter lets in and they say, Oh, you are a "this company,," but it's just a fraction of that breadth you just described. How do you help them understand, oh yes, we're that we're also this?

Sven Karlsson:

It's difficult, right? And it depends who the audience is, right? Because if it's an investor, then maybe you want to help them get excited about that thing that they are excited about. If it's your mom and dad, then you're really just trying to help them understand the numerous different things you could do or maybe something that's relevant to them. If it's your Uber driver , 1 out of 10 people will have a family member who had cancer and had to get lots of platelet transfusions and has a very, very personal connection to that donor-independent piece of the platelet. So it really depends on the audience you're talking to and how much you want to just focus on that one thing and how much you wanted to reiterate all the potential of the platform. But we find, in all of t his media piece, describing these tw o d ifferent stories at the same time can be quite challenging. I have this sense in this industry, certainly from investors a lot of the time where it's like you should be . . . they're trying to put everything into a framework, right? Like, Oh, this is like that company I invested in that I made a lot of money. Oh, this is like that company I invested in that went bankrupt or whatever. Right? And so you get all this advice from people, like, Oh, well why didn't you just hire a CRO to go and do that? And if you're trying to do something truly novel, there is no CRO who can do that, right? Because if they could, it wouldn't be novel anymore, right? They're like, Oh, well why don't you just hire a CRO to make platelets for you? And it's like we've assembled the best platelet biology lab in the world. Who are we going to outsource this to who can do this better than us? Right? Like it just doesn't make any sense. If you're making another antibody or making a small molecule, that works really well, but if you're really trying to do something cutting-edge and new, you have to build the team and you have to do it yourself.

John Simboli:

What kinds of partners are a good fit to Platelet BioGnesis?

Sven Karlsson:

When we think about our partnership strategy, typically what we're thinking about is now that we're creating these vehicles that go through your body, touch every major organ , naturally home to sites of inflammation like cancer, et cetera. One of the most obvious things we can do is put anti-cancer drugs into cells or on cells and then use these cells to deliver them. So depending on what specific drug we're thinking about, and the benefits that it would g lean from our platform, one obvious partnership strategy is to go to the pharmaceutical companies that own those drugs and partner with them to deliver their drugs for them. Right? Like we do n't w ant to be in the business of creating the, the 10th 11th, 12th , PD-1 drug or CTLA-4 drug, right? There are plenty of companies out there that already have those. And so instead of reinventing the wheel and going down that path, it would make more sense in those situations to partner with companies that have them. That said, we think about that partnership st rategy i s o ne path we can go down. There are plenty of other things we can deliver deliver that do not require partnership strategies. We're taking a multi-pronged approach where we're doing the basic work around certain things that can be advanced with or without partners. And then in the future if there is a partner that wants to seek the benefits of our platform, we'll evaluate that on a case by case basis. I think one thing that we feel very, very strongly about is that as a 30-person company, if we do a large partnership deal today with the wrong company, we can turn into a CRO, right? And that's the last thing that we want to do when we think there is tremendous value and potential of thi s platform. And so finding the right partner at the right stage of our growth that allows us to do a program with them without the en tir e compan y going in that p ath is, is ve ry important.

John Simboli:

Is it possible to generalize what kinds of people do well here at Platelet BioGenesis?

Sven Karlsson:

Everyone's different. So generalizing is always a little difficult. What I mentioned earlier around everyone makes the coffee I think is really a critical piece that everybody needs to be willing to step in and do jobs as needed. Certainly flexibility is important. Again, this concept, ev erybody i s g iving away their Legos over time and not knowing which Lego you might have to give up next because that's going to depend on the type of people that we're adding to the organization. And so I definitely think about it as that low ego, f l exible mentality. Certainly intellectual honesty is critical. We believe in very high transparency here and certainly anybody can show up at science meetings. So I'll go to the science meeting, even though I'm not a scientist and ask the stupid questions so that everybody feels comfortable asking smarter questions than what I can think of.

John Simboli:

When you meet a very bright person who's a non-scientist and you think, this is an interesting person. I wonder if they'd be interested in doing the kind of work we do. They may say, Oh yeah, but I'm not a scientist in this particular field. What would you say to that person?

Sven Karlsson:

I think people who are not, scientists can sometimes be a little overwhelmed or scared when they start talking to a scientist . And again, a lot of that has to do with the vocabulary and the acronyms and things. What I would tell them is that you should ask a lot of questions and you should definitely not be scared of moving into the biotech space. I mean, it's just an absolutely phenomenal industry to be working in. Some of the brightest people, some of the most passionate people who are really working towards solving very, very large problems. And so, I would encourage anybody who's not in the industry, who's looking for something meaningful to do with their next career path, to really not be scared of it.

John Simboli:

Sven, what good can you do in the world if Platelet BioGenesis develops as you hope it will?

Sven Karlsson:

Ultimately we are looking to get a product to patients. And I think that's going to be incredibly validating, incredibly exciting. If we can get that far , and assuming the data is positive, which, until you get there, you never know. It's still science. But I think one of the really exciting things when I think about the platelet problem is thinking about places outside of developed countries, outside of major cities in developed countries. In Boston, we run into platelet shortages frequently because there's a lot of cancer patients who are here and they've a very short shelf life. And that's true in most developed cities. But once you get outside of large cities, even in the U.S., once you go to developing countries, there's essentially zero access to platelets, at all. We refer to them as platelet deserts. If you think about a five day shelf life, you need to screen these for bacteria and viruses. Certainly if you're in locations that have high rates of, or risks of viral infection and it's very hard to collect platelets even harder to store them and it's basically impossible to get them to patients. But if we can develop this manufacturing process as we we think we can, or we can essentially locate the last stage of manufacturing wherever we want it to be, whether it's on a hospital ship or near the front lines of a battle zone , or in an area where we think civilians could be affected by humanitarian crises, et cetera . Then we can essentially begin supplying platelets to all of these populations that don't have them. People often ask us, how big is the platelet market outside of the U.S, and it's hard to define because in many places it just does not exist at all. That doesn't mean that people in those locations don't need platelets, they're not having trauma, they're not having surgery, they're not getting cancer. Right? All of those things are still happening. There's still a need for platelets. There's just zero access to them at all. So I think one of the areas that I think is really exciting, and this is a little bit further off, as typical as biotechs develop and you think about where the market is and where the price points are and the cost curves and things like that, but eventually the idea that 10-20 years from now we can be providing platelets to all those people who have no access.

John Simboli:

Why did Platelet BioGenesis choose to locate in Cambridge and then expand to Watertown?

Sven Karlsson:

We certainly started in the Boston area through my co-founders work at Harvard. So we were always intending to stay in this general area. Certainly being in Cambridge is great as far as access to capital and also attracting incredible employees. I mean just the quality of folks t hat you see here in this market is really impressive and the team that we've been able to build through being located here is important. Certainly as we continue to grow, the amount of space available i n Cambridge is essentially zero. I mean, we l ooked for almost a year, at lab spaces here and didn't find a single one that met our needs in the Cambridge area. Price agnostic, and once you layer in the pricing component, it's even more crazy. And so when we started thinking about how can we expand, how can we double in size, triple in size from where we are today, moving out t o Watertown made a lot of sense for us where it's close enough. There's a lot of biotech being built out there currently. There's really an emerging community and cluster there. Everybody's running into the same challenges that we are so that location made the most sense for us.

John Simboli:

And where's your nexus of who you're talking to?

Speaker 1:

I mean definitely the majority is in the greater Boston, Cambridge area, but it's pretty easy these days to connect with people all over the world. So we work with a partner in China for some of our manufacturing, some of the CMOs that we're looking at are across the U.S., that are not in the Boston area. Certainly there's a lot happening in San Francisco as well. So we're out there, I think I'm out there usually two, three, sometimes four times a year just meeting with folks. So , we have, , different CROs that we work with really all over the country and the world.

John Simboli:

From an access to capital view, was there a reason Platelet BiogGenesis chose to be in Cambridge, Watertown in the state of Massachusetts?

Sven Karlsson:

I don't think access to capital was the reason we located here. But certainly there are huge benefits to being here. I mean just the number of investors who are located in the area and even people who are not located in the area, if they're investing in biotech, they are in Boston at least once every quarter. So it's very easy to meet with people face to face wherever they are based in the world.

John Simboli:

What organizations do you find helpful to Platelet BioGenesis and to you as you communicate with colleagues and other opinion leaders?

Sven Karlsson:

There's a lot of different support structures in the Boston area and as first time founders we were very eager, are very eager, always to take free advice and free help whenever it's offered. We'd done a bunch of different programs, which I recommend to a lot of people who are going down a similar path to us. So certainly the Mass Life Sciences Center has a number of different programs to help early stage companies emerge. We did Mass Challenge. It's not traditionally a biotech accelerator, but there are a couple of biotech companies that work with that. We did a Harvard Innovation Lab program early on, we did the MassBio MassCONNECT program which was really useful. So there's a lot of different resources in the system and I think being willing to reach out to them and being open minded enough to take lots of different viewpoints.. When you meet with lots of different experts in any given area, they're going to tell you very conflicting pieces of advice, which is fine. You should take all those different pieces in and then i t's your job as the founder to decide which ones make sense to you and stress, test those assumptions and use that as the strategy going forward.

John Simboli:

You mentioned MassBio. What role do you play in it or does it play in Platelet BioGenesis development?

Sven Karlsson:

So we did the MassCONNECT program the first year that was available and that was an accelerator program that was pretty structured, which we found very useful. I think they're in their third year now. So, I certainly recommend that to folks. We are members of MassBio and there are certain discounts and things like you get through being a member but beyond that, there's definitely, knowing some of the folks over there like John Hallinan , we're able to reach out when we have general questions about, "Hey, we're thinking of moving. Do any space on the market? They'll reach out to us and, , bring opportunities our way. I recently went down and did a presentation, in DC around tech transfer where they were looking for a success story around technology successfully transferred out of a university and t urned into a successful biotech company. So they reached out to us to go down there and present to a bunch of different Congressional staffers, which was interesting.

John Simboli:

Are your kids old enough that if someone says, what does your dad do? Do you know how they would answer that?

Sven Karlsson:

So I have three daughters. The eldest is five, so a little young, even at that age. The five-year-old, if you asked her what I did , would tell you that I make blood, which is pretty close.

John Simboli:

That's smart kid.

Sven Karlsson:

I've tried to start describing what a platelet is versus a red blood cell and this idea that you have different cells in your blood and that's a little challenging still, but I think she's starting to get there on that piece as well. I often wonder what her, when her teachers ask her that and she tells him that her dad makes blood. I wonder what their reaction is.

John Simboli:

Thanks for spending time with me this morning, Sven.

Sven Karlsson:

It's been a pleasure. John.

John Simboli:

Sven Karlsson has a background in finance and manufacturing—skills which serve him well as co- founder and Chief Operating Officer at Platelet BioGenesis. He has the perspective needed to streamline processes so the company's, scientists can focus on their work. And, Sven has the humility to, as he says, be willing to ask the stupid questions. In the early part of my BioBoss discussion with Sven, I used an acronym without taking time to define the term. Most people, me included, would have just kept going with the conversation because they didn't want to appear uninformed. Sven stepped right up and said, "What's that term mean?" I immediately thought of several very successful biopharma founders I've known who, like Sven, also have the courage and wisdom to ask, "What's that mean?" I'm John Simboli.You're listening to BioBoss.