In a recent interview with Sharif Tabebordbar, co-founder of Kate Therapeutics, we delved into his personal journey, scientific endeavors, and the establishment of a groundbreaking company focused on developing gene therapies for genetic muscle diseases.
His company, Kate Therapeutics, has attracted funding from top-tier investors like West Village BioPartners, Versant Ventures, and Osage Venture Partners.
In this episode, you will learn:
- The personal journey from Iran to Harvard fueled a passion for gene therapies, inspired by his father’s battle with a muscle disease.
- Kate Therapeutics, co-founded by Sharif and his colleagues, emerged from MIT’s Broad Institute, leveraging innovative technology for more effective and safer gene delivery in treating genetic muscle diseases.
- Overcoming cultural shocks and challenges, the dedication to transformative scientific work at Harvard laid the groundwork for Kate Therapeutics.
- The pandemic posed hurdles, but the founders persevered, establishing Kate Therapeutics with a mission to develop potent gene therapies, emphasizing effective delivery modalities.
- Strategic partnerships with supportive investors like Westlake Village BioPartners, Versant Ventures, and Osage Venture Partners provided not just funding but invaluable expertise in the gene therapy field.
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About Sharif Tabebordbar :
Sharif Tabebordbar is a supervisor and research scientist in the Sabeti lab. Sharif’s research is focused on engineering adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) to develop tissue-specific gene delivery vehicles and to improve the safety of AAV-mediated gene delivery for gene editing applications.
Sharif received his BSc and MSc degrees in biotechnology from the University of Tehran and his Ph.D. in Developmental and Regenerative Biology from Harvard University.
During his Ph.D., Sharif developed culture conditions to expand healthy and diseased adult muscle stem cells in culture and provided the proof of concept for correcting the genetic mutation in these cells using gene editing technology.
Sharif also provided evidence for the feasibility of an in vivo gene editing-based approach to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and investigated the host immune response after delivery of gene editing components into animals.
The results of his research have been published in several peer-reviewed journals, including Cell, Science, and Nature Methods.
Sharif is the recipient of the Distinction in Teaching Award from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, the Albert J. Ryan Foundation Award for Outstanding Graduate Students in Biomedical Sciences, the Excellence in Research Award, and the Career Development Award from the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy and Royan International Research Award in Regenerative Medicine.
In 2020, Sharif was listed as a finalist (top 100) in the MIT 35 Innovators Under 35 competition.
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Connect with Sharif Tabebordbar:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So do they have a really exciting founder. You know a founder that has gone from being a researcher to really building a rocket ship. You know he’s doing that now with his team and we’re going to be learning a lot about all the good stuff that we like to hear you know particularly today we’re going to be talking about. Identifying the right people for building the right type of culture that you’re envisioning finding the right type of investors in this current macro environment that we’re living in and then also how to go about basically finding pharma partners and then also how you go about really building. The assets that you end up bringing to the table so without farther ado let’s welcome our guest today shariv tabber board bar welcome to the show. So originally born and raised in Iran.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Um, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Alejandro Cremades: So give us a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up there.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Yeah, so I was born in Shiraz in Iran to a middle class family and my dad was an accountant and my mom was a stay at home mom I have 1 younger brother and. I think the main thing that I do remember from my childhood is that ah the struggle that we had as a family ah feeds watching my dad losing his ability to walk to do his daily task to be independent. Um, because of it muscle disease I really known what it is. Knew that he’s losing his ah strength. He’s losing his ability to perform his task independently. But there was no treatment available so that’s really inspired me to get into science to try to learn about genetics and how we can. Use the knowledge that you know is ah being generated by scientists to potentially develop treatments for genetic mossset diseases and events to college in Iran university of Tehran. I got a master’s degree and then I applied to schools in the us that had research programs on muscular dytrophies I did my ph d at Harvard that is studying muscular dystrophy and developing gene therapy and gene editing approaches.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Ah, specifically for Duhan’s musqueastrophy which is a form of genetic mosset disease affecting young kids then I’ve worked in industry for a little bit came back to academia to the broad institute at mit and. Focus really on one of the biggest challenges in gene therapy gene therapy is arapeutic a strategy that can basically deliver the healthy copy of genes that are broken in different types of genetic diseases for the body. And we usually use non-pathogenic viruses for for doing that you would basically use them as some phedx delivery truck and you load them with the gene that you would like to deliver to the tissues and then you give them instructions that you need to go to this specific tissue or that. I was mostly interested in muscle. So most of the viruses that are currently used in gene therapykinical trials are so-called naturally hearing viruses. So basically these are viruses that are present in nature and. The problem with them is that when they are injected into the bloodstream as a gene delivery mortality major of Mco to deliver and there’s only a very few percentage of these viruses that get into the tissue that you’re interested in so that results in the need for injection of very high amount of virus and also.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Safety issues including liver toxicity or Kidney injury or activation of the complement system for the Immune system. So What we did was we used this a strategy called directed evolution which is basically engineering the proteins on the surface of these viruses. To give them instructions that instead of going into liver go to the muscle tissue and we develop this ah technology that enables us to basically achieve similar therapeutic efficacy. And we naturally hearing viruses but lowerre to those significant. Yeah and that’s the main cause of toxicity. So when we developed this technology then I got connected to ah 2 of the other cofounders of the company that we’re currently learning catrapeutics.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Who had extensive experience in in the biotech ward and we basically joined forces by bringing in science and also expertise in company building and putting the infrastructure together to start kerapeutics basically in 2021
Alejandro Cremades: And we’ll and we’ll talk about that in just a little bit here. You know I’m wondering because you were alluding to the work that you did at mit but you know obviously when you did your undergrad you did your master’s degree to the in Iran at what point.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: And I.
Alejandro Cremades: Do you realize hey I want to I want to go to the Us.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: At What point. Ah I think it was when I was in college I could see that us is the land of opportunity the highest quality of research in the field that we’re doing was being performed here and ah. Yeah, that was that was basically my dream that I would like to join such a research community and try to contribute to the community as as much as I can.
Alejandro Cremades: And eventually you came here to the us to do your ph d program at none other plays than Harvard. So how is that like you know, coming here to the us seeing you know the culture around you the american dream.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: If it.
Alejandro Cremades: You know, like how how was that for you was it like a ah big culture shock.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: It was a huge culture shock when I first came here at first I didn’t have enough self-confidence specifically going directly to harvard like there were a lot of very smart articulate people around me and. It was indimidating intimidating very intimidating actually in the beginning so that I find myself in the new culture in the new community to find friends to actually regain my confidence that I can. I can’t be so when I was in Iran I was one of the biggest students in this school that I was ah is ready and and then I went to this whole new environment and everybody is looked much better than me so I was like okay I need to I need to. Rebuild myself I need to make sure that I can get used to the new situation and that was very hard. The first couple of years in the us ah was extremely difficult and.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah I can see that too like you in Iran being someone that would stand out right? and then you know but given your passion and and and what you were doing there and then all of a sudden you come to the us and now you’re in Harvard and you’re looking around you and it’s like the. Best of the best from every you know other place you know on earth you know they’re going there. How do you think that they because I mean I can’t stop to think how you may have questioned yourself you know, asking yourself if you were good enough to be there to compete against you know others because also you’re competing against others too. You know. So how was that process for you. How was that thought process and in in in and just being gaining that confident to know that everything was going to be okay.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: That that’s a very good question. It was a very humbling experience I would say so when I when I first came I was not calibrated I did not know where I stand and then. Interacting with my classmates with other people who are doing research at the highest level in the world I had a ton to learn I had to learn that okay like maybe I’m good in certain aspects of doing research or these are areas that are my strengths but I have a lot of weaknesses. And I need to really work on that so it took me took me some time. It took me at least a couple of years to work on the areas that I did not have the proper education for I did not have any experience on and to build that from scratch. So um. Yeah I mean the the type of education that I got in Iran was I think it was good education but it was a different level and I had to I had to start working on areas that I did not get exposure to when it came here and so it was.
Alejandro Cremades: Now let’s say fast forward to what you were talking about earlier because you know after this, you ended up working for the broad institute of mit and harvard and at 1 point the idea of Kate Therapeltics comes knocking.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: It was very humbling.
Alejandro Cremades: You know with the co-founders so walk us through what were the sequence of events to you to say hey you know we’re packing the backs we’re going to San Diego
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Yeah, so after I graduated I had a short stint in biotech and in the same in the same field I was basically trying to develop gene editing Thepeutics. Ah for antitic mossal disease. And the issue there was they they couldn’t justify it to investors that we need to put resources into this because there was no no good delivery modality to deliver these genes or geneating components into the muscle. So I took a step back I was like this is very disappointing. This is what they want to do with my life but it makes sense like if there is no good technology to get this done. We need to fix that first so I was like okay I need to go back to academia and just start working on this because you can’t really answer these type of fundamentalal questions in an industry setting. So I went to the broad institute and. I started working on this problem in the back of my mind I always was like I’m probably going to be an Academyic scientist I’ll do a few years of research here and then I’ll start my own lab. But then when this technology was developed and we saw the potential not only in mice not only in. Human cells in vitro but also in non-human primates are like okay if I really want to make a difference. This is my chance if I really want to develop a drug that can get into patients. We need to take this to the finish line and that was where we started to engage more with people who could.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Actually help as a team to build the company. It was the maturation of the technology and the potential that it had to address one of the main challenges in the field of messaging therapy.
Alejandro Cremades: And I guess say what was the process. Also how how did you meet your cofounders.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Ah, it was true. A very good friend of mine Eric Bank who I used to go to a school with and he was involved in another company with Kevin and Mark and he basically introduced me to them and then we had a few. Zoom calls and we clicked so we started thinking about putting a company together and yeah and then we went through the whole process of fundraising they were actually trying to start a gene therapy company. A few months before and the main challenge that they had from your source was you don’t have really good delivery modalities to get this into into the muscle. So what the technology that we developed was actually the answer to that question. So I think it was a really good patch at that point.
Alejandro Cremades: So for the people that are listening to really get it. What ended up being Kate Thepiltics
Sharif Tabebbordbar: What ended up being atrapeutics. Ah I think catrapeutics is started as a muscle gene therapy company and then it has evolved over time. So the main mission is the same. Is developing effective gene therapies for genetic and heart muscle disease. Ah the how you go after that has evolved during the last two years so we we started thinking about using really interesting car technologies really interesting gene regulation technologies but then over time I think it kind of e evolved in delivery is the main issue like we need to make sure that we have effective delivery modalities effective viruses that we can get the. Trans that we want to Target Tissue and then we need to incorporate other technologies also to express them as physiological levels to make sure that you don’t express your transigen in off-tar tissues. So that’s from a scientific level and ah from a logistic level I think it has started from a bunch of zone calls. And ideas that what we want to do what diseases we want to go after and then it vents to presentations to investors and raising enough money and finding a lab space and building the lab structure when we got our first -est space we had to do a lot of constructions to build like the lab benches the cell culture rooms that we needed.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: So The whole process was quite a right? It was basically starting from these ideas a lot of conversations during the pandemic. We. We actually build the company during the pandemic and then to. Actually physically go to a La space build a team and try to work on different indications.
Alejandro Cremades: So and what about on the team. You know how did you guys go about identifying the right people you know that would match the culture. So.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: That was also a very challenging experience because we are. We are a very patient focused company like I personally obviously have immediate family members who are affected by genetic muscle is my other. Our other cofounder Eric Van he also has his family members affected by genetic mossset disease this is not something that we developed a technology and we want to just make a use of it. This is our mission for our life right? like this is what we have been working towards through our our whole adult life and we would like to bring people who have. Similar visions who care about developing medicines that can actually change the lives of patients. So that’s what we really focus on when we interview people when we try to bring people into the team. We want to make sure that it’s not only about developing technology and making money out of it. Ah, it’s about developing effective drugs that can actually print the clinic and show it works.
Alejandro Cremades: And then what about the investors you know you guys have raised quite a bit of money. So how much capital have you guys raised late. So.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: We have raised 51000000 in venture capital and we have had partnerships with pharma as well.
Alejandro Cremades: Now 51000000 you know, especially as a series. A you know that you guys did is a lot of money especially in this environment. How are you guys able to raise that kind of money in this macro craziness that we’re experiencing.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Yeah, so it’s we’re very lucky to have very supportive invest I have to say that we work with West Lake village by partners and sanddentures and they both are very sophisticated investors in the field. Specifically in Gene Therapy Geneset therapy so I think one of the reasons that the ven beat our investors is the previous connections that Kevin our Ceo had been the resource from the from his previous life. But at the same time It’s the fact that they actually understand the field. They understand what the challenges are they understand that what are the main issues that they need to be addressed and how to deploy resources to address those type of questions I think it’s very important to work feed. Investors who have a very good understanding of of the field. Obviously everybody wants return on their investment but at the same time if you if you know what the risk associated with your technology is then you you can think about backup plans. You can think about okay like what if this. Issue happens when you move towards achieving your milestones and plan accordingly so those type of conversations is going to be much easier if you need to pivot from 1 program to another program. They completely understand the issues the challenges and they can actually give you.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Very good feedback like in our board meetings. We get really helpful feedback on what if you do this or what if you take this other strategy as a backup a strategy.. They also have other companies in the in their portfolio that work in like similar areas and we have collaborations with those companies so like making. Those type of connections providing you with resources through their network that has been that has been really helpful I think we you got very lucky to have those type of supportive investors who are actually very savvy in terms of the technology that we’re working on.
Alejandro Cremades: And you know the the fact that you talked about resources there I think is something very important because most investors they say that they’re adding value. Obviously not all of them are capable of adding value. But I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that are listening to us right now and that are. Thinking about raising money too and it’s not about the money. It’s about the network. It’s about the resources that comes with the money so in your experience here. What has been you know so valuable about the resources. What? what. Those resources when they are positive and they are adding value. What do they look like.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: So a lot of it is enabling us to pursue multiple parallel strategies for critical pad questions like there is always risk associated with when you have only 1 shot at goal and what we do is that we. Try to work with our investors to deploy our resources into the most important problems but make sure that always there’s a plan b and there’s a plan c if ah, something happens pursuing a specific strategy then we have it. We have a way forward. Ah. I think that’s that’s one of the ways that we really appreciate the resources that we’re given the other one is a strategy insight that they think about it from a much higher perspective compared to like we deep in the details of like how can we get this work but then they. Okay I was like okay like does it even make sense to go this route or maybe you should try this other strategy as well because they have all these companies in their portfolio and they they can provide that kind of macro perspective to us which is extremely helpful or even like every time they have a award meeting. It’s it’s like a. Ah, ph d qualification exam for me again. It’s like it’s extremely detailed. They ask very good questions but the but the science but at the same time they provide really fairly nice feedback that we can adjust our strategy not only in doing science but also business strategy in general.
Alejandro Cremades: And as we are here discuss about partnerships because obviously those are partners that you’re onboarding. Let’s talk about a different flavor of partners and those are pharma companies. How how do you go about getting you know those ones as well enrolled in in what you guys are up to.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Yeah that’s a very good question. So I mean we are in the field of monset gene therapy and there are many different indications some of them. We can pursue ourselves but our technology allows us to contribute to a lot of different indications and that’s where partnerships come in right? like. If we ah find opportunities that ven don’t want to ah pursue to the finish line as a startup company because we need to focus then those are areas that we ah v starts. Conversations with bigger pharma bigger phar more tends. Obviously more interested in much larger indications based on the can climate. So there is always this discussion internal discussion that. What are the indications that you would like to move forward internally compared to what we would like to partner because obviously they have much more resources and there are certain indications that have higher risk than others for a biotech company I think is very. Startup by it think is very important to choose your lead indications very wisely that you can prove your platform that you can show that the first indication that you move towards the clinic um is is the right one is basically has the lowest risk possible because that defines your success in the future pharma have different.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Levels of tolerance for risk like and they take other factors into considerationion. So That’s how we think about it that indications that we probably won’t pursue ourselves we would like to enable the field or other potential former partners to pursue them. Using our technology.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in that case, you know you see there is a um ah thing about vision here that is that is critical know and and whether it’s with employees with investors even with with partners. So to that end if you were to go to sleep tonight sheriff. And you wake up in a world where the vision of Kate Therapeutics is fully realized what does that world look like.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: I think you would have very potent and safe medicines for a variety of genetic muscles like this is indications I think once that’s done we probably would expand horizons to other fields to basically and. Are there genetic diseases or maybe even at some point non-genetic diseases that you can address with our technology. So our vision is to take it 1 step at a time right? to basically think about what are the unique advantages of our technology. What are the main issues that we can resolve do that first. And take the first system very strong. Do its rights and once you show that it’s possible in the clinic at the end of the day. It’s all about if your technology is going to work in people right? like when when you get clinical data at this in our field. Ah, you can get a lot of. Preical data or in moist in non human primus. But at the end of the day the truth comes and you get your clinical information. Ah so the vision is to get there put our best food forward to get to that stage after that. Thank you about what are going to be the next indications like if you’re going to have a lot of room in the. And genetic muscle and heart disease. But after that we have our technology enables us to basically develop better delivering modalities for any other target tissue that we would like to go after so we can expand our horizons and we can go after nonetic diseases in the future as well.
Alejandro Cremades: So now we we’re talking about the future here but I want to talk about the past in doing so with a lens of reflection. So imagine I was to put you into a time machine and I bring you back to the moment where you guys were thinking about starting the company and you have the chance of.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: It’s.
Alejandro Cremades: Sitting all of you guys you know down and and being able to look across the table and to give 1 piece of advice before launching the business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: 1 piece of that voice I think the most important piece of that voice is pick your colleagues pick colleagues that you can work with I think one of the major factors that. I believe have made our team successful is that we can work fairly well together. We have reasonable people that they put their ego aside when they want to make decisions. We have very reasonable logical conversations and we come to decisions together I think that. You you can never do really transformative work alone. You need to always work with the team and it’s really important that the people in your team are reasonable logical capable people who you can work with. Think that that would be the most important piece of advice. Yeah.
Alejandro Cremades: So for the people that are listening sure if that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Ah I think Linkedin or I think Linkedin would be the best way I believe.
Alejandro Cremades: Well well you see enough Shari well hey, thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Sharif Tabebbordbar: Awesome! Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
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