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Samantha Dale Strasser has always wanted to make a positive impact on humanity, and this desire was intensified while in grad school when her father was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia — an illness with no effective treatments.
Never afraid to ask the hard questions, this personal experience propelled her academic and biotech career toward driving science to address unmet medical needs.
Using her skills in biomedical engineering, computer science, physics, as well as other disciplines, she co-founded Pepper Bio three years ago as the first “transomics” company. Strasser describes the emerging field as a fully integrated, comprehensive view of biology that shows what’s happening at a systemwide biological level. She believes it’s the data that is unlocked through this view that has the potential to address “untreatable diseases.”
“We often describe this as the Google Maps for drug discovery, which is something that folks are familiar with,” she said. “At Pepper, the way we view transomics is the ability to help drug developers navigate to the fastest and safest route towards positive patient outcomes. Specifically, we're integrating a range of different omics data layers — genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and phosphoproteomics data — to provide a comprehensive functional map of how biology works in disease and when drugs are given.”
The first area of business for the company is to build out its pipeline, which is currently focused on oncology targets, while entering strategic partnerships with other pharma companies.
“Across the board with our technology we're able to solve a range of different drug discovery questions — everything from finding and identifying novel targets to target ID through to characterizing drug compounds themselves, and later on we can bring impact through patient stratification,” Strasser said. “We span a breadth of activities within drug discovery, as well as therapeutic areas.”
In this episode of our Woman of the Week podcast, Strasser shares more about her family’s journey, why she believes the field of transomics is the key to unlocking the data needed to address untreatable diseases, and her experience as a first-time entrepreneur.
Welcome to the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive. In this episode, Taren Grom, editor in chief emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Samantha Dale Strasser, CMO and co-founder of Pepper Bio.
Taren: Samantha, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Samantha: Thank you for having me. Very excited to be here and honored to be included in woman of the week.
Taren: Well, thank you for taking some time out of your schedule. We appreciate it. Before we dig into your founding Pepper Bio. Can you please share your very personal story that led you to a career in the life sciences?
Samantha: Absolutely. So ever since being a child I always knew that I wanted to make a positive impact on humanity and that definitely evolved over time what that meant and the personal story that really shaped why I founded Pepper goes back to an experience I had early on in graduate school. My family and I learned that my father had frontal temporal dementia, which was a disease I had never heard of until that doctor's appointment. And I quickly learned that like other neurodegenerative diseases that folks may be familiar with like ALS and Alzheimer's there are no options for patients. And that experience of witnessing a loved one come to a disease really shaped what impact I knew I wanted to make with my technical career. I'd always loved science and loved asking exciting questions about what we can do in a technical field. But that really honed what impact I wanted to make and what questions I asked to really drive at reaching patients at the end of the day. And so that's to date, what's really fueled what Peppers’ goals are in terms of reaching patients where there currently are no treatments to their disease and being able to change someone else's future where they can have an experience where there is a solution and a treatment that there is to offer.
Taren: How tragic and I can only imagine how that was so impactful to you as a graduate student and then driving you to this area of science that is so in need of significant solutions, neurodegenerative disease, for sure. And you tailored your academic pursuits in a very unique way — biomedical engineering, computer science, physics, as well as other disciplines, how do these all intertwine into your pursuits?
Samantha: To me, they all point towards that common goal of bringing impact to the life sciences and notably by they all merge, bringing computational approaches. So, this is the computer science — the physics half — two hard questions in biology. So again, those fields all overlap at being able to build a skill set in the biological sciences as well as the computational sciences to bring this bilingual technical space to my own skill sets. I think we're at an amazing time in biology when we finally have so much data that we can measure and start to interpret and the computational power to actually do something with that. For me, this all points towards that end goal of being able to now bring from these large datasets, new insights that can treat complex diseases and really meet that goal to close that gap for so many and diseases that currently have no treatment.
Taren: That's wonderful. And so let me ask you, because you are one of the cofounders of your company. What led you to make that bold leap from academia at MIT, to the crazy world of the biotech world?
Samantha: Yeah, I mean, it's definitely been a scenario where many things aligned over time. As a whole that vision took shape when I really looked at how can I best make an impact in the area of healthcare with the skill sets that I built up. And this really evolved over time to my seeing the need for translation of these type of technologies to bring them to patients effectively. So, this was something where I saw being a part of a startup of biotech allowed me to be in the thick of taking that technology that's pushing the boundaries of what we can do technically, to find new solutions and to be the person leading that charge on that ship to implement aspects of this that started to build this over time that I mentioned. This starts with actually all the way back in my undergrad experience at Northwestern University. I had met my now cofounder while we were both studying for our bachelor's degrees. And through that synergy of our goals that we learned early on is what drove us to keep in touch as our careers evolved. And that's been a huge part. Now, my co-founder John and I have the confidence to move forward with this venture to to bring our perspectives to really fuel this goal that we each have of making an impact through Pepper.
Taren: It's fantastic. And just to clarify, this is John Hu?
Taren: Fantastic. So you all started a company about three years ago? What has been your biggest aha of being an entrepreneur?
Samantha: So great question, a lot that I've seen, actually stems from being able to quickly and effectively address the right challenges. I think as an entrepreneur, many folks can commiserate with the fact that there's always what people call wearing many hats in some scenarios, but there's always a lot to do, to launch something from the ground up and being able to identify what are the critical needs today, what are the right challenges that we need to solve today, while keeping in mind the big picture vision for the future? And that's something that you know, I'm ever learning how to do better and we talk about a lot of how do we best identify what's important now how do we adapt to, you know, to conditions that we're experiencing to data that we have? And to me that asking the right questions, being adaptable is really, really a key aspect to being an entrepreneur and to being able to grow a company and I hope to you know, over time continue to learn and refine that and then see pepper thrive as a result.
Taren: That's fantastic. Is there anything you would have done differently? Yeah, I mean, you're three years in now and so maybe it's just a short little back lens but anything you would have done differently?
Samantha: Um, I wouldn't say differently so much, but there's things I think I would definitely have done more of that. I think in many ways it's, it's you know, hard to do too much of notably which is growing a large network of people show and more I reflect on what's been really helpful for, for growing pepper for for growing, what the technology that we're building it really comes down to knowing people to ask advice on to help with identifying, as I mentioned, those those write questions and how to tackle them. And to some extent, there's a wealth of different perspectives that are always out there and meeting a large network of people who can help to grow a venture is is huge. And so definitely is, you know, each day look to ways I can connect with folks and want to continue that over time.
Taren: Fantastic. Yes. Yeah, that network is so important, especially as you're building that business. So Pepper Bio bills itself is the first transomics drug discovery company. What is the field of transomics? It's a term I'm not familiar with trends almost itself.
Samantha: It's a fully integrated, comprehensive view about view biology that shows you what's actually happening at a systems wide level. Notably, we often describe this as the is the Google Maps for drug discovery. Something that folks are familiar with through you know, and how navigation has evolved over time. At Pepper, the way that we view transomics is the ability to leverage this technology to help drug development project developers to navigate to the fastest and safest route towards positive patient outcomes. Specifically, we're actually integrating a range of different omics data layers. So this is genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and phosphoproteomics data to provide this comprehensive functional map of how biology works in disease and when drugs are given.
Taren: That's fascinating, and so tell me what is your vision for the company longer term and then what are your some of your near term goals?
Samantha: So, long term, I mean, this stems back to what I had stated at the onset of the impact I want to make and our goal is to treat untreatable diseases. We're carrying this out by developing our own drugs long term and bringing those new insights directly to patients. So obviously, there are many steps from starting out in the drug discovery process. Our immediate near term goals are to expand our pipeline and to bring our first program to the clinic to show the capability that we have at Pepper in the clinic itself. Along the way, some of our other near term goals are to also partner with pharma, as it's something that's a clear extension of our technology tool to bring our capabilities to other folks as programs and the challenges that they're facing, which both gives us strategic benefit, as well as an impact as we can reach more patients and diseases as a result of those partnerships.
Taren: Exciting. So tell me a little bit about the pipeline.
Samantha: We're actually starting out in oncology for our technology itself, this is a very low hanging fruit for the data types that we're working with for treatment of the disease itself. And this is allowing us to very quickly ramp up our program and to get to the clinic, obviously, an area of very high unmet need. So that's something that we've been excited to be able to come to make an impact in.
Taren: Excellent. So as you go through this process in partnering with pharma companies, do you have a specific strategy? Are there certain partners that you're looking to? Or how are you how are you pitching yourself?
Samantha: So, across the board with our technology we're able to solve a range of different drug discovery questions — everything from early on and identifying novel targets to target ID through to characterizing drug compounds themselves. And later on also we can bring impact through patient stratification. So we really span a breadth of activities within drug discovery, as well as therapeutic areas. I've mentioned oncology is an area that we see having a key impact in, but we're also able to tackle diseases and neurodegenerative diseases as well as inflammatory. So, we're looking for pharma partners that have needs across that range of the drug discovery process and disease areas such as those that are outlined.
Taren: Fantastic and how many folks are at the company now?
Samantha: To date, internally, we have a core team of five who are full time. Were thrilled to have a range of folks both in R&D as well as within drug discovery and business development. We also have a broader team that we're working with, not only through our advisors, notably Douglas Lauffenburger, my thesis advisor from MIT and Dean Felsher over at Stanford who are partnered with coronavirus oncology programs. But our broader team also extends to folks who we work with externally as well. We work with a range of folks such as with Dean's lab, through carrying out experimental work wonderfully.
Taren: Transomics is it generating a lot of excitement in what you're doing? I would think that since the center it's a new approach, that a lot of people's ears are perked up.
Samantha: It's been amazing to see their response to transomics when we share with folks in pharma and drug discovery they say that they've been waiting for this in many ways. It's been an inevitable approach that we've seen with genomics over the last 20 years really grow, but this is going up toward more functional data by bringing in proteomics, impossible proteomics, and integrating across in this transomics approach. It's been phenomenal to see not only the impact we've had to date and the enthusiasm from folks have when we're chatting with them about what we do. We'll have calls with 10 to 20 people sometimes who are just excited to hear and think about what they can do in their programs and brainstorm what they can do with what we've wrapped up.
Taren: Fascinating. You are in Cambridge, which is one of those beds of innovation in the biotech space. So I would think that when you go to look for talent as you build out your teams, it's not going to be in short supply. But what are those characteristic of those people you are looking to bring on board? What makes for a great high performing team?
Samantha: A lot comes down to the alignment to the vision itself. So, we look for folks who are passionate about the impact that we're looking to make, while having an ability to you know, really ask great questions. I talked about that earlier about solving the right questions and attacking those is key. So technical folks that can also step back and look at okay, what's the big picture? Are we asking the right research question through this experiment? Are we tackling the right problem within drug discovery and probing deeply is something that we really value. The folks who we work with and are looking to bring on, and I will put a plug in at this time we are we are currently hiring so folks, are excited about what we're doing. I'd love for you to reach out because we're hiring for our R&D team.
Taren: You plug accepted no worries. When you go to ask those tough questions around drug discovery, what is the biggest barrier right now, within drug discovery?
Samantha: A lot of it comes down to having the right data to answer the question at hand. And this is something I've been startled by from my work early on in graduate school and my cofounder John was shocked by when he was working in pharma is there's a lot of questions around. Are we looking at the specific pathways where folks focus on a specific narrow area within a within a disease for example? But the challenge there comes to folks miss critical insights because they often blinder themselves very early on to a narrow scope, so they might miss potential. detrimental effects that are a feedback mechanism that they wouldn't capture and how they're studying that disease. What we found phenomenal with our approach is that it’s more global and also brings in novel data types such as phosphoproteomic data that looks beyond just expression. It looks at what the molecular actors are doing, which really overcomes many of these challenges because it brings new context that can really launch forward new understanding and insights that historically would have been missed. And notably, we've shown the ability of our approach to do this and work we've completed to date where we've done a comparison side by side to looking at our approach versus a more traditional approach. And we see new insights that that otherwise would be missing from validation. We've shown their value, and this is really what brings us forward and it's been exciting about launching our technology to bring to drug discovery and for our own programs.
Taren: Wonderful. Well, I wish you great continued success. It sounds like it's an exciting field and it sounds like you're making some really important headway that altered the course of your career. Did you have a mentor who kind of guided you, you noted somebody from your MIT days.
Samantha: I've been really fortunate in my career overall as I've had mentors since essentially day one of my bachelor's studies. Early on I was mentored by Professor Alan Tafflove a professor from Northwestern University in the electrical engineering department, who was my first mentor in research. He saw early on from classes, my enthusiasm, my love of asking great questions, and quickly he helped me to find a research home to see how to approach research questions, which are really fundamental facets of learning to be a scientist and his mentorship really launched for me from there. My curiosities and drive to see what I wanted to do in in a technical sense of seeing what types of questions I could ask and inspiring my curiosity. Today, since then that grew to mentors in my specific research projects such as with Vadim Backman at Northwestern University, and then most recently at MIT, Douglas Lauffenberger, who is a professor and actually founded biological engineering and grew field a systems biology over his career. It has been phenomenal to learn from his expertise and his philosophy of how to ask important questions within biological engineering.
Taren: You're sitting in a pretty great spot right now, you are at the top of your game, you're sitting in the C suite, you founded a company that is making inroads into a new area of science. What advice do you have for others and I'm going to specifically say women or even girls, we can go back into STEM days, who want to pursue this area of science, anything that you learned along your long the way that could be any advice you could give them?
Samantha: It's going to be twofold. I'd say one and especially thinking towards even folks in school today, and even in grade school, is to ask questions, and to be curious and to speak up and to ask something that you want to know. And really to cultivate that and to find mentors and colleagues who support that. That's something that I look back and I think, in many ways was, since even a child at home something that my parents cultivated. I was relentlessly the person in class who would raise their hand and ask something early on, and that stuck with me and I think that's for me as a scientist has been a phenomenal foundation to grow from, because it allows the ability to think very acutely and very quickly about what's the right question and what do we want to do, and finding people that support that really complements that and helps to grow a phenomenal team of people, both as mentors and as a team as we grow Pepper.
Taren: That's great. And I'm so excited to hear how you are really thinking about that curiosity aspect because I do think that is one of the commonalities of great leaders is that that constant curiosity, that constant wanting to know more, that constant wanting to ask different questions, to break new ground, and that's how we move science forward.
Taren: We talked about building a team, high performing team, we talked about at mentorship. Do you consider yourself to be a role model?
Samantha: I had to ask my team and to some extent, I'd like to say yes, but I think a lot of that comes from asking the folks around me. I think there's a lot to be said for feedback on that. I like growing our team. It's been a phenomenal experience in doing so and we've seen our team grow and evolve. So from that metric, absolutely. And the thinking through what my foundation was early on, I was essentially a first-time scientist in my family and in that sense, I view myself as a role model for folks coming from a background or maybe there's not as much internal support and knowledge of how to do that. And I'd be happy to be a role model for folks. How can one do that effectively and continually evolve to reach that type of goal.
Taren: You are a first time scientist in your family, sometimes families are made up all scientists and that's where they get their love of science for but for you there was a different path. It sets you apart.
Samantha: I talked about people a lot in this conversation. And I think that that's been definitely a resounding asset that helped me to grow in terms of mentors who I've connected with and colleagues who I now work with because that's at the core of how we make things happen in the world. And I've felt very fortunate to work with the folks who I have today.
Taren: Wonderful, well I loved our conversation, and sadly our time is running to an end. So as we do with all of our WoW podcasts I'm going to tap you to identify at a wow moment in your career and accomplishment or a turning point that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you. So what is your wow moment?
Samantha: Well, my answer falls into two parts. First off, a key facet that's definitely shaped my career are the individuals I've worked with and the mentors I've talked to over time. So Alan encouraging and mentoring my early research career was a phenomenal experience that definitely set the foundation early on for me.
The second facet that I'd note that's really shaped my career is certainly the personal experiences that I've had with feeling the need for treatments for untreatable diseases. And what that's like and really having a drive that pushes forward what we're doing at Pepper and the impact that I aim to bring to the space.
Taren: Wonderful. Well, it's been wonderful getting to know you and hearing about your career journey and the exciting work that you're doing to Pepper Bio, and as I said before, we want to wish you continued great success. and pushing through it and answering some of those tough questions that you all are asking. So thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Samantha: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit PharmaVoice.com This 2022 program is copyrighted by Industry Dive.