[by Jonathan Lu]
Celmatix is a biotech startup focused on developing a clinical test for fertility. Their main product is Polaris, an algorithm that analyzes a patient’s clinical data and outputs risk factors in fertility. At fertility clinics across the country, physicians use Polaris to inform treatment of their clients. We sat down with James Leslie, Chief Financial Officer, and Sam Globus, Manager of Scientific Operations, to talk about the exciting research and work being done at this STEM startup.
Sam began by telling us about the science behind the company. The company had access to 250,000 patient cases of fertility, as well as 300 whole genome sequences. These data form the basis for their algorithm. The company’s bioinformaticians use statistical modeling to identify the effects of certain genetic variants to the fertility cycle. With this information, the company enhances Polaris, their genetic testing algorithm. The company is clearly invested in the fundamental scientific research, publishing papers and submitting abstracts to conferences. One surprising research finding was that many patients are first recommended cheaper, but ineffective treatments, such as non-in-vitro fertilization (IVF), when they should move directly to the more expensive IVF treatments. Finally, James and Sam stressed that fertility is extraordinarily complicated, and Polaris is constantly being refined.
We then talked about the differences in scientific research between industry and academia. Most projects in academia are headed by individual grad students; we were curious how Celmatix were able to get each of its 50 members to collaborate and work toward the same goal. The answer? Create a culture of collaboration, through weekly meetings and social events, like trivia. By fostering friendships between its employees, Celmatix encourages them to feel comfortable reaching out and asking each other questions. “There’s something wrong if you’re working alone in your cubicle all day,” as Sam put it. Another difference between academia and industry is the managers. For a company to grow and to have a positive working environment, it needs managers like James to do culture reviews, hire employees, and create open channels of communication. Culture was clearly more emphasized in the collaborative company setting than in the academic setting.
Next, we talked to Ana, Anja, Anthony, and Nick about their work. Anna was a molecular biologist who dropped out of her postdoc to come work at Celmatix. She “wanted to make an impact”, and found more potential for it at Celmatix than in academia. Now, as a cell cycle geneticist, she performs sequencing experiments and reviews the literature on genetic fertility. Anja and Anthony were data scientists. They trained statistical models on the features within patient clinical data (e.g. ethnicity, age, disease history) to make predictions about fertility, while also integrating information from the 300 whole genome sequences. Finally, Nick (EEB ’11) was a platform development manager, working on making the user experience as smooth as possible for the physicians. When asked about their favorite part of working at Celmatix, some mentioned the flexibility. “I like that I can go and talk to literally any other employee in the company when I have a question.” Others mentioned the impact. “We are building software that could directly improve people’s lives.”
We ended our visit with a general discussion of what it was like to work at a startup. Sam felt that a startup job puts one in a better position for career development. “Unlike at corporations, you are not pigeonholed into one area. Maybe the money isn’t as good, but at a startup, you will gain much more experience. You will be pushed to learn all sorts of new things, and you’ll better understand what it takes for a company to be successful. You have fluidity: my job has changed in so many ways since I began working here. And even if you don’t succeed, employers will think higher of you for having that experience.” James then talked about the traits of a successful startup. “You need to have investors buy into the vision. Especially at a STEM company like ours, they need to understand the science, understand that it will take time to develop a good product. Otherwise, the investors will rush, the product will be rushed, and the company will lose.”
Our trip to Celmatix was exciting and enlightening. We’re grateful to everyone there for having us!