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The 20(+1) under 40: Inside the next generation of biotech leaders

Endpoints News recognizes Outpace Bio co-founders, Marc LaJoie and Scott Boyken in their annual 20 under 40 list in the world of biopharma.

Marc Lajoie and Scott Boyken reimagine the possibility of proteins

Like many 18-year-olds starting college, Scott Boyken had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.

He began his undergrad career as a music student and changed his mind several times before settling on a computer science and biology double major. Consumed by the drive to create new things, Boyken found his way to the Iowa State doctoral program for computational biology.

“I’d always wanted to find something where I could combine understanding how things work with creating new things,” Boyken says. At Iowa State, “I really fell in love with proteins and studying structural biology … by the end of that, I knew I really wanted to do protein design.”

While studying there, he met Marc Lajoie, a young researcher who was working with George Church on new genetic technologies, at a conference in Germany in 2011, and the two became fast friends. Ultimately, Boyken and Lajoie teamed up at David Baker’s protein engineering lab at the University of Washington, where they would help provide the foundation for Rick Klausner’s star-studded Lyell and then spin out their own company in Outpace Bio.

The professional relationship between the two started early in their postdoctoral work at Washington, and they heaped praise on one another throughout their discussion with Endpoints. Lajoie would often approach Boyken, who he described as one of the best protein designers, if not the best, in the program.

Their big breakthrough was a project involving de novo protein design that Lajoie calls “locker switches,” which he says are essentially proteins with no prescribed biological function. Whereas proteins that have evolved naturally over billions of years have done so to accomplish specific functions, the proteins Boyken and Lajoie are designing can be fine-tuned to do whatever they want.

Lajoie compared the approach to making customized parts for modern electronics. In order to make a smartphone, one needs to refine raw materials rather than picking things off the ground or in trees.

“It’s the same thing with these de novo proteins. You can go and re-use stuff that’s out there, and there’s a tremendous amount of biology that’s out there,” Lajoie said. “But in the end, when you want to program a really specific function, you need custom-designed parts.”

Those locker switch projects from the Baker Lab, with their relatively easy programmability, eventually caught Klausner’s attention at Lyell. Klausner explained how the tech could be applied to the next generation of cell therapies, and they got started at the company in early 2019.

It was a far cry from where Lajoie thought he’d be. While Boyken was jumping around majors as an undergrad, Lajoie was fairly certain he wanted to work in something with science. He geeked out over organic chemistry and drug design, but early on he “didn’t really know biotech was a thing,” he said.

Boyken and Lajoie spent their time working with the all-star team at Lyell, and got to the point where the company was ready to test a number of their hypotheses. Lajoie said the nearly two years they spent there was a “really productive” research period, and in order to get everything into the clinic and work on their own collaborations, Klausner suggested last summer they spin out into their own biotech.

Thus, Outpace Bio was born, where Lajoie serves as CEO and Boyken as CSO. There isn’t much the duo is ready to talk about yet, and the biotech’s website is barren. But they recently unveiled a $30 million round and a solid tumor partnership with Lyell. Lajoie added that their focus on the locker switches will encompass a broader scope than their projects at Lyell.

As the fields of cell and gene therapy move forward, Outpace is taking stock of where the science is right now in order to map out the future. There are currently three FDA-approved T cell therapies, Lajoie said, but they all target CD19 and still don’t have efficacy in solid tumors. Lajoie and Boyken believe the cells involved are making the wrong decisions, even though they’re doing as they learned during eons of natural evolution.

Where they hope Outpace can step in is to reprogram that biology to fight disease.

“We see our role in cell therapy as creating a way to break cells free from their evolutionarily pre-programmed decision-making processes,” Lajoie said. “The diseases that the industry has been banging its head against for decades, without being able to find a cure — the fundamental reason behind that is that these diseases are too complex for a single molecule to overcome.”

But all they helped contribute to these two buzzy biotechs very nearly never happened — in the summer of 2018, about a year before Lyell emerged from stealth, Boyken and Lajoie were in the middle of preparing their faculty proposals. The pair who ended up leading Lyell’s protein and cell engineering were a smidge away from becoming college professors before Klausner reached out.

“Long story short, Rick is a great salesman,” Lajoie said.

This profile was originally published in Endpoints News. Catch the full story and list of innovators here: