Up & Running with Wesley Wierson, Founder and CEO, LEAH Labs

April 5  

Wesley Wierson is a passionate scientist and entrepreneur applying his expertise in gene-editing technology to solve consumer-level problems in society. He studied microbiology as an undergraduate, where he was first exposed to gene-editing technology through undergraduate research.

As a Ph.D. student, he developed gene-editing technology that permits the integration of exogenous genes into the genome, thus giving cells new functions, allowing scientists to study biology and genetics, and to engineer living therapies. In his free time, he enjoys hanging out with his fiance and dogs, hiking, camping, snowboarding, golfing, and learning about frontier technologies.

Give us LEAH Labs’ elevator pitch

LEAH Labs is engineering living therapies for companion animal health. We use gene-editing technology to impart cells with genetic information they use to fight disease. We’re first focused on translating Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, a remarkable FDA-approved technology that is now curing a handful of blood cancers in humans, to dogs with B cell lymphoma.

What led you to found LEAH Labs?

During my Ph.D., I developed and filed a patent on gene-editing technology. We realized this tech could be used in the “real world” to solve a problem. Around the same time, CAR-T cells gained FDA approvals. Dogs and humans share the same environments, physiology, genetics, and diseases that humans do, and because they get the same type of cancer that is CAR-T curable in humans, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, we hypothesized that CAR-T would work in dogs too.

Moreover, we realized that current animal models for cell therapy development are sub-optimal for a litany of reasons, including the use of germ-free, immunocompromised mice with a synthetic disease that does not replicate natural disease in immune-competent animals. Trialing novel cell therapy strategies in spontaneous disease in dogs brings the promise of a better model system for human drug development, and also helps dogs.

As a leader, how has your role changed during COVID-19?

We’ve been quite fortunate to have little impact on our company from COVID-19. As a leader and first-time founder/CEO of a biotech company, I have had to transition from in-person business networking and growth opportunities to entirely online. This has been a challenge as nothing can replace face-face interaction. However, it may have actually increased the throughput for networking (and certainly saved on travel costs!) as scheduling became easier.

Have you pivoted your company to address the needs that have arisen since the onset of COVID-19?

The biggest hurdle that COVID-19 has brought to LEAH Labs was that our lab was shut down for five weeks at the start of the pandemic. We also had a week or two of lost time due to employee exposures or COVID-19 illness. Outside from lost time, everything about our business has stayed the same – we had luckily closed a funding round just before the pandemic hit, so our runway and milestones remained unchanged.

What are the big milestones coming in the next few years for LEAH Labs?

We’re transitioning from an idea stage, R&D first company into a clinical development company. As such, our biggest next milestone is to treat patient dogs with cancer with a living cell therapy, CAR-T. We’re planning to run 3-5 different pilot studies in the next year, and our goal from those is to 1) put dogs with B cell lymphoma into remission and 2) identify a lead asset with which we can get into USDA-CVB regulatory trials. After that, we’ll need to raise a solid Series A funding round to get our therapy through trials and into the clinic.

How do you balance leading a startup with your everyday life?

First and foremost, be it knownst I am extremely privileged, fortunate, and a bit lucky, to be in the situation to answer this question as I have:

The startup is my everyday life. There is very little separation, honestly. It’s been that way since my PhD work, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I love to live and breathe this; I couldn’t imagine a life not taking work home. But it helps tremendously to have a very supportive life partner in my fiancé. She forces me to put the computer away and relax with a TV show or cards, and also understands that sometimes I have to have evening meetings, or stay late for experiments, or go to the office 20 straight days. I have dogs (my Chief Inspiration Officers) which help me to get outside hiking and running. Since I began life as a scientist 10 years ago, days of the week haven’t mattered much. You can’t control when science needs to be done (weekends, 2 am on Tuesday, 10 pm on a Friday). Because of this, I have lived by the philosophy of “work hard, play hard” for a long time. I may be in the office 20 days straight, but after that deadline, I take a day or two (or a week) away. But I’m always on slack and email.

What’s one thing people get wrong about startup life?

One thing that I’ve noticed myself is that just because you have a really cool idea, or are solving a really important problem in the world, doesn’t mean that you’ll find investors who are willing to fund the company.

What is the best advice you have received in your career?

Best – “Create your own job after graduate school.” This was echoed for 3 years from a grad school mentor, Dr. Steve Ekker, before I really took it to heart. Glad I did, or LEAH Labs would not exist.

What is the worst advice you have received in your career?

Worst – “You should replace yourself as CEO.” I jumped from PhD candidate, to PhD, to full time CEO of LEAH in like, 30 days. I went out trying to raise money 90 days later. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it probably showed. But that lit a fire under me. I suppose the LEAH Labs story is still being written, but I’m working hard to ensure I can laugh that quote to my grave.

What is one personal goal for the upcoming year?

I’m a runner. It’s how I get that needed stress relief/decompression/high. I’ve ran 3 half marathons and I have set a goal to run another this fall, with a marathon next spring.

How do you relax/decompress?

We try to take time away from “home” at least monthly, be it a weekend car camping trip or a weeklong Rocky Mountain road trip. If I need a Wednesday off to sleep in and go golfing, so long as I’ve managed my deadlines appropriately, I let myself do it.

What do you enjoy most about the Medical Alley community?

I think we all carry a collective chip on our shoulder about building med/bio/health tech companies in Medical Alley. It’s not Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle. We all want to keep making a name for flyover country and keep demonstrating that it’s possible to build these visions here.

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