Moving from academia into industry can be a daunting challenge for an early-career scientist, but it’s one that CTSC education program alumna Paige Yellen, PhD, is tackling with enthusiasm and determination. Dr. Yellen is now Founder and CEO of the new biotech company ABC Life Sciences, which is developing a nanoparticle drug-delivery platform for the treatment of kidney diseases.
Her path to becoming a health tech entrepreneur began in her postdoctoral studies after earning her PhD from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). As a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Neal Rosen, MD, PhD, at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), Dr. Yellen remembered affectionately the long nights and her excitement for her research into cancer biology. “I would sit down on the floor right next to the dark room to examine, pour over, my Western blots,” she laughed. “One of my colleagues joked that the lab should buy me a chair!”
Despite feeling a deep passion for the science she was doing, however, Dr. Yellen felt that her best skills were not yet being fully utilized. “In the beginning I thought I should want to be in academia. In the grad student world, that is often considered success,” she observed. “But I had to be honest with myself: I love science, but I didn’t want to be in a lab.”
MSKCC researcher Daniel A. Heller, PhD, is a colleague who has developed technologies that could potentially be brought to market, including the nanoparticle that is their current project. “He presented his lab’s research at an internal conference and I was so intrigued; I met with him and we decided to start a company,” she remembered. Taking the Weill Cornell Medicine graduate course From Bench to Bedside: Business Fundamentals for Entrepreneurial Scientists also proved inspiring. During that class, Dr. Yellen pitched ABC Life Sciences to a panel of venture capitalists against six other teams—and won. As her thoughts turned more towards becoming an entrepreneur, she found having the right mentors to be another invaluable asset. Attending biotech meetings allowed her to meet mentors who were willing to listen or to help connect her with others.
Now fully committed to making the company a success, Dr. Yellen is learning the ins-and-outs of the industry through hands-on experience, including being a current fellow of the Entrepreneurship Lab Bio and Health Tech NYC, a highly competitive initiative founded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to educate and support early-career tech entrepreneurs. She thinks ABC Life Sciences is serving an important need right now. “I named the company ABC Life Sciences because I wanted to reflect on the ways research creates a sequence of building blocks, like letters, that then lead to translation. There really is very little in terms of finding new ways to treat kidney diseases, despite a push for more research funding,” she noted. “It’s just been accepted that these patients will eventually go on dialysis, so there’s a great opportunity to transform care.” She’s now hoping to shepherd the nanoparticle technology through important milestones of the developmental pipeline, from proof-of-concept studies through Phase II studies in humans.
As part of her training, Dr. Yellen praised the diverse offerings of the CTSC’s TL1 program. “I learned so much. The electives were so varied and the breadth of applications for clinical research was great. At the time, I thought about how I could apply what I was learning to academia as a post doc, but now I’d come at it from a different perspective as an entrepreneur. I’ve saved all the books! I loved being in the program, because I had another outlet, another perspective, outside of the tunnel vision that might come from focusing too intensely on bench work alone.”
As for the lessons she has learned as she launches this new endeavor, Dr. Yellen described the following as essential characteristics for a successful entrepreneur, in her opinion. “You have to be open and vulnerable to other people. Talk to people, but be a little selective and make sure there’s an objective. At the beginning, my attitude was, ‘just get out there,’ and now I’m more focused. One of the most essential things is being able to communicate yourself—your idea—in a very brief encounter with someone: who you are and what you’re doing. You need to be optimistic as an entrepreneur because there are often too many reasons to say ‘no.’ But you also have to be very realistic about your own product. You can’t be so attached just because it’s yours. You have to be creative: there is not just one avenue to get something; you have to think of different ways to get to a goal.”
“Paige Yellen really exemplifies everything we hope our students can become,” Julianne Imperato-McGinley, MD, program director of the CTSC, noted. “There’s an absolute commitment to scientific rigor and excellence, but also a desire to make a difference and really impact the lives of people living with disease. Starting a business is an intimidating proposition, but Paige is embracing the challenge of it.”
Acknowledging the many different types of personalities that can be successful, Dr. Yellen observed, “I’m more of a risk taker. I want to be successful. I want to be happy. I’m willing to take a risk to achieve those things.”
And if an idea doesn’t become reality? “I have lots of ideas; I’ll move to the next thing and move forward,” she said, with a smile.
For more information about educational opportunities at the CTSC, visit here.