Nanoplex is taking a unique approach to disrupt tick feeding physiology and combat tick-borne diseases. Livestock are important in this effort due to their impact on global economies and the livelihood of farmers. In this episode of the Futurist Society Podcast, Dr. Awesome interviews Dr. Joseph Beyene, a leader in the biotech space and co-founder of Nanoplex. They discuss the importance of innovation and access to biotech, as well as Dr. Beyene’s journey in the industry. They also touch on the challenges and opportunities in the biotech field, and the need for inclusivity and entrepreneurship. Tune in to gain insights into the future of biotech and the potential impact it can have on healthcare.

Watch the episode here


Listen to the podcast here

The Future Of Arboviral Disease – A Conversation With Dr. Joseph Beyene

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Futurist Society Podcast, where we are talking in the present, but talking about the future. As always, I have a really amazing guest for you today, a leader in the biotech space, Doctor Joseph Beyene, who is the co-founder of Nanoplex. And he has some pretty interesting takes on what biotech is right now, what he hopes it’s going to be, and also some interesting things that he’s doing with his company, which is trying to combat tick-borne diseases, which are a big problem, whether you know about somebody with Lyme disease or whether you know about some of these other rare issues that ticks often cause in the human population. It’s something that I see relatively routinely. But tell us a little bit about what you’re doing over there at Nanoplex, Joseph, and, like, how you got into this field.

Awesome. And thank you, Doctor Awesome, for having me. You know, at Nanoplex, we envision a world where tick-borne diseases will no longer cause $18 billion in global livestock damages to the global livestock economy, and where people have a solution for not suffering from the long term effects of Lyme disease. So I got into this field because I was helping build the first research consortium focused on Lyme disease. And when I gathered the physicians investigators together to do this project to really move and advance the field, I started seeing how I could contribute and give hope to patients who didn’t have hope. What I realized is that we could create a topical solution that prevents the spread of all tick-borne diseases by being the first company that specifically targets and disrupts tick feeding physiology. This is our way to prevent the spread of all tick-borne diseases. And we’re extremely excited about the potential of the product we’re developing. And I’m excited for us to work together to have a solution for this problem that affects so many people and animals worldwide.

Awesome, man. Well, I commend you for what you’re doing. I think that people don’t realize the amount of insect borne diseases in general, and also the novel ways of treating these things. For example, a lot of different countries are using genetically modified mosquitoes to eradicate things like malaria and some of these other different insect-borne diseases. Tell me a little bit about what your focus is going to be in regards to administration and how that’s going to decrease the likelihood of somebody getting a disease like Lyme disease or some of these other tick-borne diseases.

This is a great question. So, the majority of solutions for tick-borne diseases are these neurotoxin-based acaricides. They’re meant to be broadly used, right, for both ticks and various types of insect vectors for diseases. What sets us apart is our unique approach: we are disrupting conserved mechanisms of how ticks attach and feed on both humans and animals. We’re developing a topical solution that will prevent this attachment mechanism and thereby prevent the feeding and dissemination of tick-borne diseases. This is the unique way we’re approaching this problem. But even deeper than that is the prevention of blood meals from ticks. By potentially reducing the number of ticks on an exponential level, because they need the blood meal to reproduce three to 5000 eggs, we’re very excited about using novel mechanisms of bioengineering and bio-adhesives to provide a solution to this problem. This perspective has never really been approached before. So, we’re combining a novel approach with a huge, unbelievable livestock industry and human impact.

How did I get it to ticks?

So why ticks? Do you know somebody with Lyme disease? Is there a particular reason why you chose this vector as opposed to other different things? Like, is your background in insect-borne diseases? Tell us a little bit about why you chose ticks.

This is a great question, Doctor Awesome. You know, I’ll take a step back. When I first got into graduate school, I was described as an undifferentiated stem cell because I get excited about challenging problems. So how did I get it to ticks? Well, when I helped build the first research consortium focus on Lyme disease at Harvard Medical School, to be quite honest, I had no background in infectious disease research or tick biology, but I educated myself on not only the biology of disease, but the sociology of the disease, the political levers of the disease. It reminded me of my experience as a historically marginalized person with people not getting the answers from the medical establishment, people not having answers to their scientific questions. So I saw this as a way to leverage my scientific accuracy, to give hope to patients and answers to the illnesses that they’re dealing with when it comes to tick borne diseases. So it was serendipitous in how it happened. And I want to run through a wall to solve this problem and leverage the treasure trove of biology, tick saliva, to create solutions for both humans and animals.

Yeah, I think that I have a lot of patients who come in with Lyme disease, and I don’t think people realize, like, just because you have a diagnosis doesn’t really mean that you know anything about it. You know, I feel like the amount of stuff that we don’t know about lots of different diseases could dwarf the amount that we do know, especially in regards to Lyme disease, like, it affects every organ system in the body, right? Like, I mean, if you have a Lyme disease patient, like. Like, I would have to worry about their heart, I’d have to worry about their kidneys, their liver, every single thing. And it’s crazy that it just started from, like, them out in the woods just getting bit by a tick, you know, unnecessarily. Right. And that’s only, I think, the starting nucleus for all of the things that the ticks carry. So I didn’t even really think, like, oh, let’s take a step back and go back to the vector of the disease, rather than just treating the disease itself. And I think that that’s something that I’ve recently come into understanding. That’s how they’re treating malaria in a lot of developing countries. They’re trying to focus on the mosquitoes, and that’s one of the things that I think was novel. So has this been something that is a relatively new concept, or is this something that they’ve tried in the past and it hasn’t worked? Like, what are you innovating in regards to the therapeutics that are currently available?

To answer your question, this is a very new method of approaching the problem at its root, right? We’re not trying to perturb the neurotransmitter signaling in all insects for broad use. There’s nothing bespoke to ticks on the market. There’s nothing that addresses how to disrupt conserved mechanisms of tick feeding. So the way ticks glue themselves to you is what we’re trying to perturb in this process of disease transmission. And right now, we’re still developing our proprietary compounds to achieve this mechanism. But what I’m happy to say, Doctor Austin, is that we have collaborative support from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, with which we’re doing this project alongside renowned founder Jeff Karp. Additionally, we have support from the USDA Cattle Tick Fever program to aid our commercialization efforts in really curbing this issue.

Why livestock is important?

What is the focus on livestock? Why is that important?

Great question. Tick-borne diseases affect over 80% of the global livestock population. They’ve caused between $15 to $18 billion in livestock damages. So you can imagine all the governments and farmers that are eager for a solution that curb the spread of tick-borne diseases and the effects that they’re having on livestock. So many governments rely on livestock husbandry for their global substance. So I saw this as a way to solve the problem not only for animals, but also for global economies that rely on livestock for their sustenance. So I see this as a way of attacking, not attacking livestock, but for preventing tick-borne diseases transmission to livestock, so that we could both ameliorate the condition of animals, but also global economies that rely on these mechanisms for their health.

Yeah, I can see it being certainly lucrative because livestock are such a big proponent of our economy. We all eat meat. Well, sorry, that’s not true. We don’t all eat meat, but a lot of people eat meat. But I guess my question to you is, how is it done? Like, you’re saying it’s an adhesive or some sort of, like, something that’s put on topically, or what is the mechanism of it?

Right. So what we’re trying to do now is develop the actual modality. We’re not sure if this is going to be a cream, a spray in the context of livestock, or if it’s going to be a pour-on. So we’re trying to understand exactly the delivery modality. We’re still working out the details, so I can’t speak to the exact mechanism by which we’re doing this. But what we are doing is targeting the natural adhesive substances ticks use to transmit disease. And this mechanism has never really been focused on or interrogated before, even in the tick field itself. People aren’t thinking about this because when I first conceptualized this idea, it wasn’t really, you know, it was like, wow, we never thought about it this way before. That’s why I ran with it. And, you know, these are the types of things that excite me, thinking outside the box into how to address problems in a new and novel way, in ways that people might think are kind of crazy. So what we’re doing is very unique and has been validated with some preliminary work that I’m excited to talk about in the very near future.

Future of biotech

Nice. So I want to zoom out and just talk about biotech in general. We’re in Kendall Square right now, which I think is one of the biotech hubs of the entire world. And it’s something that’s really had such a significant impact on our lives, like the Moderna headquarters developing a vaccine for the pandemic just a few blocks from us, to now, CRISPR being used and all these different things. Like, are the lesser-known vectors, like tick-borne diseases, still generating a lot of excitement in the same way that you’re seeing excitement around longevity or DNA modification to cure these diseases? Is it something that biotech as a whole is being propelled by, or is it only specific use cases where a lot of the excitement is coming from?

Right. What I’m very much excited about in biotech and what I see the future of biotech really heading towards, is the use of biomimetic approaches, reengineering nature to develop novel therapeutics. And when you ask about an underappreciated area, tick spit or tick saliva is a treasure trove of immunobiology, which I plan to leverage as a new class of immunomodulators. What do I mean? We have these great treatments like CAR T-cell therapy, right? And the promise of allogeneic cell therapy, which is essentially off-the-shelf T-cells that could be engineered to fight cancers, right? But a lot of problems arise, such as immunogenicity and graft-versus-host disease. Most immunosuppressants suppress the entire immune system. But what if you could create a targeted approach where you could develop a therapy without the unwanted side effects of the immune system? Tick saliva contains a cocktail of bioactive compounds that numb pain responses, itch responses, and both adaptive and innate immune responses. So right now, I’m working on leveraging those tools, biomimetic approaches, to create these immunologically privileged micro niches, essentially a way where we can numb the immune system where it needs to be numbed and stopped and create therapeutic effects. So that’s my long-winded answer to your question: I see the future of biotech moving towards these biomimetic approaches because nature is already doing these things. Why not repurpose this for innovative technologies in medicine? And so I’m incredibly excited about the future.

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s kind of like the old becoming new again. When you’re talking about biomimetics, it’s something that was used maybe in the fifties or so to engineer new drug compounds like even penicillin. It’s a direct response from the fungi that we’re able to combat bacteria. And so I hope that you’re right. There are so many different chemical compounds out there that we don’t know about, and I hope that some of these things are going to be repurposed. But I guess my main question is that, as an outsider not in this field, I see a ton of popularity in the biotech industry right now, more so than I can remember. Maybe that’s just because I’m naive, as an outsider looking in. Other than just pharmaceuticals, there are things coming up in the news every day that I think are revolutionary. Like, treating aging as a disease. People walking on the street who have no real knowledge of medicine are excited about that. I was talking with a writer a few weeks ago, and he was excited about potentially living to be 150. That’s something that has spread throughout the consciousness of the nation. It’s really interesting, and it’s a direct result of the biotech industry, happening within the few blocks around us here in Kendall Square. I just don’t know if the same kind of investment, the same kind of attention, is happening for lesser-known diseases. Because I feel like it is, but I’m not sure. For example, the cure for sickle cell. They have this new deletion such that you can remove the DNA that causes sickle cell, and then these people have the ability to live a normal life afterwards. It’s obviously a very expensive treatment, but you’re basically curing this person’s innate genetic issue, and something like that is kind of niche, but it’s super popular. I don’t know if, behind the scenes, there was a lot of popularity for it and now it’s out in the public consciousness. Is that stuff happening with lesser-known diseases, like Lyme disease? Or is the rising tide lifting all boats, or is it just that certain things are more popular than others?

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, I would say it’s the latter. Infectious diseases, vector-borne diseases, people are not looking at the revolutionary potential of these different ways pathogens are transmitted, how we can leverage them for human use. But we are excited about the developments in therapeutics, especially when you talk about CRISPR, which was ironically adapted from the bacterial immune system and leveraged for human purposes. So we’re doing this with bacteria, but when it comes to vectors like mosquitoes and ticks and different vectors, these things have been sort of underappreciated. What’s great about cell therapy, what CRISPR therapies are doing for sickle cell is really editing that gene that causes the cell to sickle and have a normal cell. Even in this context, there’s a huge need right during this time where these cells are being prepared. The patient doesn’t have an immune system because it needs to be reproduced, repopulated. So companies like Beam Therapeutics that are doing base editing are figuring out ways to condition your immune system. So you’re destroying those cancer, the disease cells, but you’re also keeping the healthy cells while you’re waiting for your transplant. So, in terms of innovation, companies like Beam Therapeutics are doing base editing, as opposed to CRISPR, which is sort of editing a whole locus of the genome. It’s quite innovative. These things continue to evolve and get better. But that’s my long-winded answer to your question: yeah, I don’t think all ships are rising. I still feel like other platform technologies that target diseases that have a larger population are being sort of focused on, but I’m always looking at the diamonds in the rough and what are those things we haven’t really explored to see how we can answer a lot of these unmet needs in terms of immunogenicity of drugs and conditioning regimens for patients who wait for cell therapy.

Game changer

I mean, I have a tangential appreciation for translational research because I interact with a lot of research people through my podcast and also through my career. And so I feel like all of them have this kind of, like, pioneer mindset, right? Like, I’m going to go and I’m going to figure this thing out that nobody’s ever figured out before, which is awesome. I feel like when I see all these amazing things happening, I feel, like, CRISPR in my mind as an outsider looking in has changed the game. Right?

And now that we have this huge game changer, I would hope that all the different life sciences are being reevaluated in regards to their potential for profit or even helping humanity. When I look at AI, like artificial intelligence, it’s like you could just put AI on your company name, and your stock goes up, right? I see people just throwing money at this thing for really marginal benefit. Like, it hasn’t impacted my life the way it might have impacted someone who has been cured of their condition of sickle cell. So I hope that there’s a lot more investment coming in biotechnology because of the amazing advancements that are happening, but I just don’t see if that’s possible. I hope that through this podcast, people will realize that maybe we should take a chance on something that might not be as popular. I feel like all the money is going to longevity right now, which is great because I also want to be living to 150. It’s not something that I think should be just exclusive to billionaires and everybody like that. But I hope that more investment comes into this because Lyme disease is a huge problem. If that’s something that can be fixed or if the idea of having livestock that don’t have to be treated for tick-borne diseases, I think that would be a big issue. I just don’t know if the same kind of investment is happening because all this other investment is happening.

Right. You hit the nail on the head. These aren’t the popular cost drivers to the public. But what you… at least once you open the hood, you see just the staggered effect these things have on the global community. So you’re right, unfortunately, biotech is a business that these diseases that are affecting larger populations have cost margins that have been proven in the past are the ones that are getting invested in. And there’s been some huge advancements. But I hope, I mean, with government initiatives, in theory, funding is being provided for more of these lesser known issues that are affecting huge populations around the world. And I want to be a conduit for that, to give hope to these people who don’t have access.

I hope that through this podcast, people will realize that maybe we should take a chance on something that might not be as popular.

And one of the things that we talked about in regards to access is just like access in general to the biotech industry. Aside from you developing this novel therapeutic, that’s something that you’re a big proponent of. Tell us a little bit about how you came into this space, into the industry itself and why you feel like it’s super important for everybody to have access to it.

How did I get into biotech

Right. I’ve always felt that there’s not access to innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s always been a pipeline issue, not a talent issue. So, I feel like my stories of that nature, and I want to open doors for others. So how did I get into biotech? Well, during my graduate training, like most scientific discoveries, we discovered a novel subset of extracellular vesicles. You’re like, what are those? Well, these are like bubbles that are secreted. Imagine a kid blowing a bubble at a party. Well, we found that your cells secrete these same bubbles. Who cares, right? Well, we found that HIV uses the same process to bud from the cell that your old cells use to make these bubbles. So we said, hey, if these bubbles act like a virus, how they get out of cells? What if they act like a virus, how they get into cells? If they do, why not package it with potentially therapeutic molecules? This is how I got into biotech and company creation. I led a collaboration between two labs at Harvard, where I characterized their whole beat ability in the composition of these vesicles. We call Arbs, and that became a company called Vested in TX that got a $28 million series A investment from Leaps by Bear and Alexandria Ventures. So this is how I got bit by the bug to say, hey, I want to create companies that have solutions that major unmet needs. And so this is my exposure to biotech, and I’ve just been running with it ever since.

But, you know, one of the things that I’ve seen in the news recently is that, specifically here in Massachusetts, I don’t know how it is in the other states or countries that people are listening to, is that, number one, the workforce is difficult to find people that are skilled in the biotech industry. Like, you have to hire people and train them for a really long time before they’re effective. And so I know that here in Boston, in Cambridge, we’re developing a program for non-traditional applicants, like people who are maybe in this second stage of their career, or maybe have not really had access to biotech as a career in the past or not even thought about biotech as a career in the past. And I think that the amount of focus on just bringing a more diverse and well-balanced workforce is something that is now happening in biotech as it is in so many other industries. So I know that that’s something you’re passionate about. Tell us about what’s lacking from the biotech industry and then also what you hope would happen in the future.

Yeah, Doctor. Also, this is a great question that I think about often. I want to take it to a deeper level in terms of diversifying biotech thought leadership, because it’s one thing to diversify the workforce. But there’s a pyramid, right, in biotech, and you have people working, but then you have decision-makers. What I want to see is more diversity of folks who are making these decisions, because diversity of thought contributes to innovations. There are several studies that show this and demonstrate this. So what we need to do is create a pipeline where we give opportunities to historically marginalized communities for a chance to take a risk, to fail, to learn, right. To gather these learnings in leadership and have opportunities to grow their careers in the biotech space. It’s a very difficult problem, Doctor Awesome, because there’s limited space, but there are limited opportunities. But my objective is to really create those opportunities through entrepreneurship and take a risk on individuals who haven’t traditionally had that opportunity, because this has been my experience, and I’m excited to open doors for others because this is how we contribute to innovation, this is how we scale these technologies to really help all humans, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic background. So this is something I’m really excited about, and I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first to say that. But I think we need to be action-oriented, really be transparent in how we plan to meet these objectives with each other.

In choosing a career

So if you were to talk to, like, a young kid that maybe is good at science and was thinking about biotech as a career, but then their parents are telling them, you know, for something more traditional, like, you should become a doctor, you should become a pharmacist or something like that, what would you say to that kid? What would you say in regards to what he should do? Like what his career trajectory should be… What advice would you give him?

Well, that’s a great question. I would try to put myself in that position because I wasn’t really inspired to do biotech at an early age. But what I would tell this person is to say, you know, sit back and listen to what feels good to you, listen to what you feel the opportunities are for you to best leverage your talents and what naturally piques your interest, because whatever you do in your career, whether it’s biotech or medicine, you want to do something that makes you happy and that gives the impact that you’re trying to achieve in the world. So what are some practical things I would tell them? Well, I’m not going to just tell you things. I would want to try to point you to resources where you can get laboratory experience, talk to other folks in the industry, and make those connections because I think paying it forward is the biggest thing we could do. People in positions of authority or power, we all have authority. Whether you like it or not, we all have a position of power. We can help someone. So for me, I would point them to those resources to get the basic knowledge they would need to get into the biotech industry. What exactly do you want to do? It’s broad right now. Let’s narrow it a bit or expand it, you know? But I would really try to point the people who can actually help this person get to the next level, give them those tools. Right. The tools they need to progress in any career.

I think mentorship is huge. I totally agree with that sentiment. Like I was telling you, I don’t think that I would be in the position that I am had I not shadowed somebody that was doing exactly what I’m doing right now. And I don’t think that there’s a lot of opportunity for, especially young kids, to see what a really high-functioning career is like. You know, it’s because we’re working all the time. Like, I’m not interested in babysitting some person that might be in high school or something like that. But I think it’s important. I think we should. I just don’t have quite the access to that kind of mentorship that I would want for somebody like that. And I think that the other component of this is also, like, people who might be working in the lab, right. And they have something that they consider to be interesting. You’re kind of doing this other thing, which is you’re starting your own company and you see some sort of economic value from it. Right. How did you make that transition? Because I feel like there are a lot of people out there that are doing the grunt work of the biotech industry, which I really appreciate. And those people are super important. And I think, to be quite honest with you, I think it’s like a good work-life balance. If there’s something that I would say that’s really interesting about the difference between my field and some field like that is like, I can’t turn my field off. Right. For life sciences, you do your work at the end of the day, then you can just be a dad and be a husband and be all these other things. But entrepreneurship is not like that. Right. You’re on all the time and making that jump. What would you say to somebody that’s just kind of doing tabletop research and wants to make that jump but might not have the idea of how to do it?

If somebody were to make that jump, I would tell them to first find opportunities to get into the space that they want to. If you already have a scientific background and have been at the bench, you could work at a startup, right? And understand the business of a startup and figure out, hey, how do I transition from just being at the bench to having a voice in the field? Or you can go into consulting. It’s sort of bespoke to what that person enjoys doing. But for me, to answer your question, I’ve been excited about science for a long time in my life, but I wasn’t so excited about the mechanisms of the signaling, but what you could do with science. I was always a big-picture person. I was like, wow. For example, with CRISPR, right, if you could figure out how to edit the genome, you could potentially cure blindness, which they have clinical trials going on now. You could cure sickle cell. I was always a big-picture person. I knew that avenues to get these technologies from the bench to people hinged on innovation and business development and really understanding what ideas are commercializable, what ideas are good research tools. So this is what always fascinated me about science. And early on, yeah, I went there, I did my experiments, but I was always big-picture-minded because similar to yourself, Doctor Awesome, I’ve always been a people person, and I’ve always wanted to leverage my scientific acumen to bring solutions to people. And the way I see myself doing that is usually by finding ways to build ecosystems of innovation. And this is what really excites me about the broader impact of the life sciences objectives that I’m trying to achieve.

Transition from being an employee to being self-employed

So I guess my question is more like the nuts and bolts, right? Like, you have this guy and he’s working at a lab doing amazing stuff. Maybe he’s making a really nice salary for his family, but he sees some value in what he’s doing outside of just looking at a microscope all day, right? To make the jump from a steady income to, you know, I’m honestly not sure how a startup makes income just because it’s not my field of expertise. Like, did you start out as something you were doing on the side and then, like, once it achieved a big enough following or I guess, like, critical mass, then you started doing it full time. Like, how does one go from that jump? Because I feel like that’s a lot. That’s what I hear a lot of people’s hesitance. Like, for example, you know, my field, it’s very steady, right? Like, I go, I get a paycheck from the hospital, and I make enough to feed my family, which is great. And that’s, personally, that’s all I’m interested in. But I know I might have a family member that also has that similar career trajectory. And for them, they might be thinking about doing this thing, but they’re just, they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of how to do it, how to make that transition from being an employee to being self-employed.

Yeah, yeah. That’s extremely difficult. And it’s hard, right? If you have a family to feed, it’s not practical for you to leave. Silicon Valley has all these stories. “Oh, I left my job.” Yeah. Well, this is an access issue, right? You probably have family, friends, parents who can help support that transition if things don’t go right. But for a lot of folks, you know, the majority, we don’t have that option. So my advice would be slow and steady wins the race. I wouldn’t recommend quitting your job that you’re feeding your family with, but I would say you can increase your knowledge, you can expand your network. You could plan that life that you want by carving out time in the day to achieve those goals. Right. You could wake up a little earlier to say, “Hey, maybe I should talk to a patent attorney, get some advice about how these things typically work.” There are so many free services that will give you some advice, supporters, even some funding, right? Know how far along your idea is. But in the beginning, it’s tough because this is precisely the situation I’ve been in. I haven’t raised a ton of money for my company. It’s still early. We’ve made progress. We have some small funds. I’m still working my day job to build these things. Right. Eventually, I see myself doing this full time upon our first raise. And when we start really ready to log the way. But you have to do both. And, you know, it reminds me of people like Einstein, right? He was at the patent office for seven years, you know, at his cobbler trade while innovating, right? So people do both all the time. Jeff Bezos built his company while working. So this narrative of you need to leave your job to really build something, I feel like is entirely false, and it comes from a privileged sort of perspective, but we shouldn’t feel that pressure. So my advice would be to take it slow. And believe me, I’ve been this boat where I want things to move so fast. I don’t have to work and continue to do this. A lot of late nights and early mornings trying to make this dream come true, and I haven’t been in. This is the happiest I’ve ever been. So I feel like it’s the right thing.

Genetic diseases

I think we were talking earlier. It’s like once you figure out that this is what you were meant to do, it stops becoming a job. Right? And this starts becoming a calling, which is sort of how I feel about my job. Like, I would never want to jump to another field or profession, but I know there are a lot of people out there who see what’s happening in biotech. They want to start their own company. They’re just not sure about how to do that. So I wanted to ask you that because you’re kind of in the mix with that right now. But also, I just wanted to zoom out again with just biotech. You’re in the field.

There are a lot of amazing things happening now, and I’d love your take on them. Like, specifically, the idea of genetic editing, you know, which is something I feel like I’ve always been interested in because my background in surgery is craniofacial disorders, and for a lot of them, they’re genetic issues. Right? Like, so if we could change the genes, then they might not have the symptoms later on in life, for whatever reason. I see the sickle cell one where this disease could potentially be eradicated, which is a genetic component to it. They had this familial hypercholesterolemia study that was stopped prematurely because of, for whatever reason. I was talking with another geneticist that there was, like, in the past, a lot of negative aspects to gene therapy in the past. Now it’s a little bit more bespoke and much more targeted. So a lot of these things that happened in the past are not happening. But is this something that potentially could cure all genetic diseases? Is that something that people truly believe in the industry, or is it something that they’re like, “Well, you know, we’re not quite there yet?” I don’t know that as, like, an outside observer, because I would love to hope for the future where genetic issues can be cured before they start causing problems. I just don’t know if that’s something that’s realistically going to happen within our lifetimes. How do you feel about it?

Oh, I feel that it’s already happening. Right? You can even look at Bridge Bio, looking at monogenic disorders in cancer. So cancers and different diseases that are caused by one gene. Right. They’re using different gene editing modalities already to cure those diseases. And also, we’ve seen this with CRISPR, with sickle cell. Right? There are clinical trials, the usefulness of CRISPR gene editing and blindness already reversing aging in dogs. Right? So I see this as a field that’s going to continue to grow, but there are still limitations for off-target effects. Right?

Sometimes these therapies can cause downstream cancer. This is what’s happened in different clinical trials. So I see this as a field that’s going to continue to evolve and not just direct gene editing, gene-modified or gene expression agents like siRNA with Alnylam right up the street, they’re making huge advancements in the treatments of different metabolic disorders. So I see gene editing continuing to evolve. I still think we’re years away from seeing it as a mainstay in therapeutic options. But, you know, what a time to be around, what a time to be in the epicenter of innovation as we continue to develop these novel technologies. But I’m really excited to see where the field goes in the next five to ten years. But I do see a major play in different modalities in gene therapy for a resurgence of AAV delivery modalities, but also liposome delivery modalities, because a lot of these issues, you know, technology isn’t so much.

The big bottleneck is delivery. How do we deliver these bespoke technologies specifically to cells that live in off-target? I think the field is moving towards answering these really critical questions about how do we get these great molecular payloads, these genetic payloads to this disease cell? But not only that, how do we maintain this bioactivity when it gets there? Right? Because you can imagine once this therapy gets to a cell, there are all these different mechanisms that chop up foreign materials and things like that. How do you evade these processes and get it to a targeted cell? So I see this is continually to evolve and shape our industry.

Lyme disease

Interesting. Do you think we’re going to cure Lyme disease within our lifetimes?

That is a great question. So antibiotics do a good job for a lot of people, right? But we still don’t know how these spirochetes really interact with the immune system. I mean, they’re so tricky. They hide between the interstitial fluid of your skin, and they’re so sparse. They’re not very abundant. So it’s really hard to characterize where they’re at. Like you mentioned earlier, you’re checking all the organs. Right. Because they disseminate quite rapidly. So finding a cure alive, I think we’re making some progress, but I don’t think we’re going to get there till the next, you know, I don’t know, five or so, ten years.

But what I’m excited about, Doctor Awesome, is that people from outside the field of Lyme, like myself, and my co-founder, different expertise, are starting to contribute their expertise to the field, which was absent for the past 20-30 years. This is what we need in science. We need to create diverse nodes of expertise to attack problems that traditionally weren’t looked at in this way. And so I think Lyme is an example of this, where a lot of people that are in systems biology, bioengineering, physics, different disciplines, are starting to say, hey, how could we leverage our expertise to really find a solution? So I see Lyme moving quite rapidly because of this, and I’m really excited to be a part of it.

Yeah, I gotta ask, because, you know, I did a lot of research before today’s podcast. Have you heard about this conspiracy theory about Lyme disease?

I’ve heard a lot about how it started out as, like, a bioterrorism weapon and, like, just, like, accidentally got released. I thought that was, like, super interesting, because, well, my wife, her family is very close to Long Island, where this Cold Harbor plant is, and then it got supposedly released across the bay to Lyme, Connecticut, which is how it has the name Lyme disease, which I think, you know, first off, I want your take on it. Like, is this, like, all just B’s? But number two, I think that’s what a lot of people have fears about when it comes to biotechnology, right? Is that, like, this could get out of control. I mean, it’s also the conspiracy theory behind COVID, right? It’s like, this is potentially, like, research that has been disseminated by accident. Right? What do you say to those people, like, that have a lot of fear associated with, like, these biotech advancements? Because I’m sure that the Lyme disease thing was something that, like, I wasn’t really expecting when I started doing research for today’s podcast. But the pandemic thing, I mean, it’s like, you know, almost national media right now, right? I mean, something that’s out there, and who knows if it’s a conspiracy theory or not? But the fact of the matter is that there’s a real fear that people have about biotech advancements. And I think that we’re both in the same boat, that we have a lot of optimism, a lot of hope about what biotech has to offer. What do you say to those people? And also, do you think the Lyme disease conspiracy is real?

I’ll answer the same question. I don’t think it’s real. I need to look more into it. But I don’t try to focus on these conspiracy theories. I’ve tried to focus on the people. And from what I’ve read, I don’t really believe it. I can’t really verify, I can’t unverify it. So I try not to, because I could be up all night thinking about if it’s real. What I’m concerned about is, how could we put our bright minds together to outsmart these ticks? Like I always say, what the hell are they good for, right? Like, they suck blood and give diseases.

And so I want to understand, hey, how can we leverage their properties for therapeutic and human needs, and how do we get rid of the impact that they’re having on the entire world? To answer your first question about how do you calm worries about this? I mean, with every technology, there’s potential for good and bad, right? You know, cars are great for driving, right? But they can be used to hurt people. They can be used to do things. So technology always has a good and a bad. And you’re right, it depends on whose hands it gets into. But what I am hopeful for, what I’m excited about, is that we have regulatory bodies, we have multiple people who are involved in the process of the manufacturing of these therapeutics that ensure safety. In the past, it hasn’t been perfect, but we learn from our mistakes. Right? We learn how to innovate and become better as a humanity and as a society. I’m willing to bet on the usefulness of these technologies over their potential harm. I’m willing to take the risk to be a part of that innovation, because I feel like there’ll be much more good than harm caused if we continue to work together with the right mindset.

Some who are hesitant for treatment

No, I agree with you 100%. I just know that, like, I have conversations with patients that are a little bit hesitant for treatment. I have to have conversations with even family members that are hesitant for treatment. My tactic is always to use science as a defense mechanism when it comes to speaking with people that are hesitant about treatments that I have to offer. Maybe biotechnologies, they might not understand, but I’ve come to realize most recently is that that is not effective.

You know, I can hide behind the sciences as much as I want, but they’re never going to believe it. So I didn’t know if you had, like, some other tactic. I’m sure that you have those same kind of conversations with people that are in your orbit because people that are in science, like ourselves, we still have to interact with people who are not in science. And so what do you say to those people? Is it different for them from what I have to say, or do you have any other tactics that you use when you’re talking to people who are a little bit more fearful about either different technology they understand or even the future of biotech in general?

I try to understand before I give a solution. I try to listen, and I feel that if we listen more, we would realize a lot of the things we’re worried about are kind of the same. I try to listen, but sometimes, you know, you can’t get through to people no matter what you do. So I feel like it’s better to listen. I have family members and friends. When they talk about the vaccine, my godmother said, hey, did you take the jabba juice yet? And so it’s like, when you’re coming from that, it’s like you already know how the conversation is going to go.

I try to listen, and I feel that if we listen more, we would realize a lot of the things we’re worried about are kind of the same.

So I want to be a connector of people and I want to just create conversations. Like, my job isn’t to really convince you, but I just want to expose you to a different way of thinking. And if you think it’s still, like, fishy, that’s great, but I want to hear where you’re coming from. And my tactic is just to ask questions about why they think. It’s almost like the Socratic method of, why do you think this? Why do you think there’s a conspiracy? Well, this happened in this era. This happened. Okay, great. Like, what were the, what was the context of that? And what about the positives we see? Like, you know, right now you’re taking XYZ medication. You see the benefits.

So I try to humanize everything and have a conversation because most decisions we make are emotional, in my opinion. So I don’t have all the answers, and there might be some valid things they have to say. So I just try to create dialogue, and I think that’s the best way to convince somebody. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s going to come through dialogue and community building and exposure. So that’s the sort of approach that I take when trying to convince naysayers, I guess.

pessimism that’s associated with advancing technologies

Yeah, it’s tough. I deal with, like, a lot of kids and their parents.Like, there’s always studies that are out there that refute other studies. Like, I mean, and it’s very difficult to even ourselves, I think, parse out the quality of evidence. Right.

Personally, I think the COVID vaccines were, in general, a good thing, but on the same token, like, there are known side effects that have been underreported. And so that’s something that we have to reconcile with when we’re talking to patients. Right? Like, there is that mentality of this thing that affected all of us where I feel like the verdict has not been written yet when I’m talking with parents. It’s not only the component of the science. And like, this is what I think the best thing is for your kid, but there’s also the emotional component, like, what if you’re wrong?

I’m always looking for people, especially in the biotech industry, to see, like, how do we get rid of some of the pessimism that’s associated with advancing technologies? Because I feel like that’s something that persists in any new technology, like whether it’s artificial intelligence or, you know, nuclear fusion. There’s always, like, this segment of the population that is pessimistic about it. You know, it’s interesting to hear your take on it because I’m sure that you’ve had people that have come to you and feel like you have to convince them, right.

I’ve already lost my hair. I don’t want to lose more of my hair trying to convince someone who’s firm with their belief. But this is the disconnect, right, between the scientists, the medical practitioners. There’s a disconnect between lay folks and the type of science they’re doing, what they’re doing. There’s a disconnect in communication because if people were exposed, I always believe they’re exposed and spoken to in a manner that’s respectful, where they can understand that you can agree to disagree on something, but acknowledge, like you mentioned just now, Doctor awesome, that there is some validity. A lot of science is refuted, a lot of, there are a lot of side effects that affect populations, that this COVID vaccine isn’t safe for everyone. So acknowledge that, be upfront with that. And I think that will guard our mutual respect. And eventually, hopefully, a turn is sort of how people view biotech and the future of biotech with less pessimism.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

So we’re getting close to the end of our time. And I really appreciated you coming by. I think we really had a lot of interesting things to talk about. But I do want to just get some general questions out of the way because it’s something that I do with all of my guests. I want to know kind of where they’re coming from, where their inspiration is, what they see for the future. So starting with all that, I preface a lot of my conversations from the standpoint of somebody that’s a hopeful optimist. And a lot of that hopeful optimism comes from science fiction. I look at series like Star Trek and Isaac Asimov as some of the best ideas of what the future holds for us. Where do you gain your inspiration from when you’re obviously doing this novel thing, and you want to make sure that it gets to fruition? You have to have some sort of inspiration that’s driving you. Where do you get your inspiration from?

I really get my inspiration from my past. I see the people who came before me who were from historically marginalized backgrounds, who figured it out how to contribute to innovation, the George Washington Carvers, the many innovators who didn’t have resources but paved the way for people like myself. So for me, I would be remiss if I didn’t leverage the opportunities I have to give back the intellect that I have to contribute to innovation. And reminded of the innovators that have gone before us, the hard work that they’ve done, and I want to channel that energy to make an impact that’s going to be a long lasting impact. So that drives me every day and the sacrifices that were laid before to get me here. So, yeah, those are some of the things that inspire me.

Yeah, I love George Washington Carver as an example. And honestly, I think the whole concept of a renaissance man is something that, for whatever reason, it’s almost looked down upon these days. Like, if you do too many things, somehow that’s seen as a negative. Like, you have to have this one career trajectory, and it has to be from this school and this field, and then you get here, you know? And I like to think of Anton Chekhov. He was one of the greatest Russian playwrights of all time, and he was a physician. You can do a lot of different things, you know? And the concept of what you’re talking about, like, you can have a day job and still be promoting your business and trying to do this really amazing thing, and once that gets big enough, then you move on to that thing, and then once you’re done with that, move on to another thing. You know, I think that’s something that I really love about what you said. And I hope that a lot of people take inspiration from that because that concept, I think, is a really big deal. You don’t have to be limited to just one singular career or one singular trajectory. The whole concept of a career is different now. It’s just not linear the way it once was. So I really hope that for those of you who are on a path, you realize that there are multiple paths. That’s something that’s really inspiring to me when you said it.

Biotech in ten years

But specifically about technology, I wanted to talk about biotech and where you see the field in ten years. We’re in the midst of some really amazing technological breakthroughs. How do you see that permeating into the life of an everyday person who might not be in the field? You might have more investment, you might be running your own company in such a way that you have thousands of employees, and ticks or diseases are a thing of the past. But specifically for the everyday person, what does the biotech field look like in ten years for them, I think?

Two major advances will happen in the next decade. One is the acute diagnosis of predispositions to cancers and different immunopathologies. With the advancement of AI and accelerated drug delivery tailored for each individual, this is only going to become more robust and precise. So, the first thing I see is the acute diagnostics of different cancers and immunopathologies prior to disease onset becoming a part of everyday life for individuals. It almost sounds like science fiction, but I see biotech moving in that direction quite rapidly.

A second advancement is the use of allogeneic stem cell therapy. These are off-the-shelf stem cells. Currently, when people undergo cell therapies like CAR-T or CRISPR, they use autologous cells, meaning cells from their own body. However, imagine if your immune cells are depleted, and you have to wait for enough cellular material to be reinjected back into you. This can be incredibly dangerous, even life-threatening. But now, the field is moving towards using off-the-shelf stem cells that could be readily available. So, if you need a cancer treatment or bone infusion, there will be cells readily available for you. These advancements require thinking big and outside the box, but they are indeed happening. I believe that in the next decade, this will become a reality for the everyday person, tailored to their specific needs. So, while it may seem like a long time from now, it’s actually not.

Yeah, no, I don’t think so. I think that all of the technological building blocks are there, and I know firsthand how difficult that process is. My mom had a bone marrow marrow transplant when she had leukemia. And those few weeks where she had zero immune system, those were a herring few weeks, you know?

I look forward to that day. Stem cells, in general, hold tremendous promise. In just a few weeks, Yamanaka is having a talk just a few blocks from us. He’s the guy who developed these Yamanaka factors that reverse cellular lineages, which is really interesting. I think it’s incredibly exciting to contemplate the ability to have off-the-shelf biological products that mimic the human mechanisms that are already present. I hope to see that because there are many people who would benefit from it, including patients undergoing surgery. Some patients may receive the best surgery in the world, but they still struggle to heal because they have poor protoplasm. I hope there will be different advancements for them so that we can aid their healing process, not just for people battling difficult diseases.


Now, onto the last question. We’ve delved into biotech extensively today, but the future is advancing rapidly in various technological, scientific, and understanding aspects. What am I most excited about when it comes to the future, aside from biotech?

What interests you? And you’re like, “Oh, my God, I can’t wait until I get that.” And I can tell you, I can preface the question by telling you what I’m interested in, which is robots. I can’t wait until I have a robot that can fold my own laundry like that day. I’m going to be the first person in line for that robot. Right. What about you, Joe? What are you most interested in?

Well, so many things. I’m really interested in sort of understanding the stories at a genetic level from our ancestors. I know that sounds crazy, but if you think about it, the germ line is immortal. The germ cells you have, not the cells that make up your skin, but your sperm and egg cells that make you. These are passed on from every generation, I’ve always wondered what were the real stories? What were the real struggles that our ancestors and people before us? What were the achievements that we don’t know.

I live in this Sci-Fi world where we can look at the genetics and how those genes are modified and tell stories about the experiences about our ancestors and how we can use those to inform our future. Different things. But I think about things like that. I think about inclusive ecosystems of innovation, how we can merge those things. But those are sort of the wacky things I think about and some of the normal things I’m excited about.

It’s like on steroids. on steroids. Exactly.

Important Links


About Dr. Joseph Beyene

Joseph is an entrepreneur, scientific advisor, consultant, and philanthropic program manager with over a decade of experience in the biotech innovation ecosystem. His strategic leadership operates at the nexus of scientific innovation, patient advocacy, and business. A cornerstone of his expertise lies in the recruitment, construction, and effective management of highly collaborative multidisciplinary teams, comprising top investigators from both industry and academia. Drawing from his background in life sciences venture capital, he brings a wealth of experience in conducting rigorous analyses of pre-clinical and clinical research, strategic positioning, and company formation. His fervent dedication centers on cultivating inclusive ecosystems of innovation that catalyze the development of transformative therapies addressing significant unmet medical needs.

Joseph’s recent recognition as a recipient of the Acorns Grant from MassVentures underscores his commitment to advancing pioneering research. This prestigious award, bestowed upon faculty researchers at MA research institutions, aims to facilitate the testing of technology viability and potential market entry.


By: The Futurist Society