Welcome to Part Three of In Conversation, a series of conversations in the BioHive with Maryland innovators and game changers. Our guest this week is Jon Rowley, PhD and CTO of RoosterBio, Inc, and Frederick entrepreneur extraordinaire. RoosterBio is pioneering the field of stem cell manufacturing and Jon sat down with the BioHive to talk about the incredible impact that RoosterBio’s technology could have.
Liora Knizhnik: First thing’s first – what are Mesenchymal Stem Cells and what do you do with them at RoosterBio?
Jon Rowley: Mesenchymal Stem cells are cells that occur throughout the body. Whenever you’re injured, they’re the ones that mobilize to come to the site of the injury and fix the tissue or organ. They’re basically tissue repair cells – they trigger the healing process. They’re actually the stem cell population with the most publications and the most clinical trials surrounding them; there are well over 600 clinical trials happening and there are drugs and medical devices that are being built based on this stem cell research. At RoosterBio we see stem cells not just as tools for research; we consider them a “technology,” similar to transistors or microchip. If you want to build a smart device for your house, you shouldn’t have to know how to build a sensor or a microchip before you develop your device – you can buy these pieces of technology from standard suppliers. Stem cells are the future microchips of tomorrow’s medical products, and RoosterBio manufactures and supplies these stem cell technologies to product developers.
Mesenchymal Stem Cells are being incorporated into so many types of future Regenerative Medicine. They are the engines of the next generation of therapies and devices.
LK: Tell me a little more about how RoosterBio got started?
JR: RoosterBio launched just over three years ago on October 1, 2013 in the technology incubator in Frederick, MD. We manufactured our first products and made our first sale before we had any investors. We launched RoosterBio with our own money and it was either going to work or it wasn’t. Since now we have 200+ customers in 16 different countries, I guess it worked! We’ve actually doubled in size since January and we now take up three labs and several offices in the incubator.
LK: How did you get to RoosterBio?
JR: I was a Tissue Engineer in grad school, but I spent most of my time just growing cells because Tissue Engineering requires so many cells. I’m in love with creating living cellular technologies so I knew I wanted to work in that area. I realized at some point that unless cells could be made more readily available, Tissue Engineering would proceed at a snail’s pace. Every company tries to reduce the innovation cycle time (the time it takes to take bring a new idea into reality) so they can make a radical advancement. When I was looking for the thing I wanted to do next, I was thinking about launching a therapeutic company off of these cells (Mesenchymal Stem Cells) and it occurred to me that these cells can be used for so many applications so how do you decide what to use the cells for? You end up becoming a stroke company or an oncology company rather than a stem cell company.
My expertise is in scalable manufacturing and I realized that most people doing Tissue Engineering, Regenerative Medicine, and stem cell research aren’t great at manufacturing. I realized I could have a much larger impact on the industry by trying to make these materials (i.e. cells) available to people instead of trying to develop a new therapeutic. My goal is to make the biggest impact possible on the commercial translation of living cell-based technology. A therapeutic company can only take one application to clinical trials every 8-10 years. By developing a technology that will go into a lot of different medical products, RoosterBio can be the Intel of the fledgling Regenerative Medicine industry.
LK: What’s RoosterBio’s greatest success story so far?
JR: I think right at the top is creating well paying jobs in Frederick. This year for the first time, we were able to offer benefits and health insurance to our employees. Our goal is to have benefits for our company that are on par with bigger companies. I’m also really proud of how we’ve built up a strong business that has allowed us to expand. We have a strong culture within the company, we’re solution focused rather than problem focused, and we’ve assembled a really amazing team of leaders in the stem cell manufacturing field. We’re looking to radically change the field and by allowing more stem cell products to make it to market. Stem cells are the technology that will allow therapeutics to develop, and we are accelerating that process.
LK: What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring biotech entrepreneurs?
JR: My top piece of advice? Have a good business model. Figure out how many customers you will need before you can be cash flow positive. You have to have the business plan along with the technology, otherwise you won’t go anywhere. Also, unless you really want to do it (be an entrepreneur), don’t do it. If you don’t want it deep in your core, you’ll lose interest or drive. Nothing about startups is easy, but it’s worth it.
Thanks for joining us for this week’s installment of In Conversation! Check out this article from BioInformant on the BioHive for another peek at the great work that RoosterBio is doing. Stay tuned for more In Conversation and for more about the thriving biotech community in Frederick!