Improving human health by sequencing and analyzing the microbiome and developing targeted therapies

Colleen Cutcliffe is co-founder and CEO of Whole Biome, a company working with the Mayo Clinic and others to analyze the microbiome—the community of microorganisms that lives on and in our bodies—and to develop therapies that use the microbiome to improve human health. Whole Biome, which has been incorporated for one year, is a resident company in the Janssen Labs @QB3 space at QB3@953.

What’s your background?

I have a PhD in in biochemistry and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins. I did my postdoc at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where I used microarrays when they first came out, looking for diagnostic markers for kidney tumors in children. Then I moved to the Bay Area and worked for Elan Pharmaceuticals and Pacific Biosciences, a DNA sequencing instrument company.

How did you start Whole Biome?

At PacBio, I learned how biology can intersect with software and hardware engineering. That’s where I met my co-founders: John, who ran external collaborations, and Jim, who ran software development. The three of us worked in the same department to put out products. We saw a great opportunity to apply our skill sets in the setting of the microbiome—which is all the bacteria on the outside and inside of you.

So what does Whole Biome do?

We focus on high-quality and high-resolution data in order to develop diagnostics and therapeutics. We work with clinicians and clinics who have patient samples and expertise in various diseases, and believe the gut microbiome plays a role.

We’re working with the Mayo Clinic in a project to prevent preterm labor. The number one cause is infection. We want to find out which bacteria cause preterm labor, and how to improve the vaginal skin microbiome so women are less likely to go into preterm labor. The Mayo Clinic is funding the work. They have OBs who can collect vaginal microbiome samples from patients. We process the samples, do analytics, sit at the table with OBs and say hey, we think these are the markers for preterm labor. We think these are potential therapeutics. Then they find patient volunteers for clinical trials.

What has your biggest challenge been?

We’re three scientists who have the technical expertise to execute all these ideas, to talk to clinicians. But when you start a company there are a whole lot of other things that are required. How do you open a bank account? How do you get the legal paperwork in place for partnerships? What does the terminology mean? What’s beneficial in the short term for the company? In the long term?

All of those very practical necessities to start a company are new to us. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant, trying to learn while doing.

What’s your experience at QB3@953 been like?

QB3 brings to the table a lot of information we’d otherwise have been trying to get from a million different places.

It’s huge for us to be able to go to seminars in which experts are brought in who are already vetted and talk about things that are exactly what we need to know and then are available for follow-up conversations.

There are a lot of common hurdles everyone faces no matter what your company is. There was a seminar early on about biologics—what was the FDA going to do—it felt so specific to us, but we went and it was a packed house with all kinds of companies.

We learn a lot from the other companies too. We’re collaborating with Assembly and AOBiome.

We all talk together trying to figure out problems and help each other. You wouldn’t necessarily have predicted it—you might think everyone going after same resources would be competititve, but it’s not at all the case. Everyone’s on same ship together holding on tightly.

Doug sitting in office next to us is one of the key people. You know there are nodes for networking in the world? He’s one for the startup community.

Where do you want to go with Whole Biome?

This week the plan is [laughs].

Ultimately we want to hit on a variety of therapeutics that target the microbiome. It’s pretty early in the space so we’ve cast a wide net with various clinics and diseases, doing pilot studies to see which one is going to pan out to be something you can intervene in for human health. It won’t be just one, it will be several of them.