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Dr. Elizabeth O’Day is CEO and Founder of Olaris, Inc., a precision medicine company that is working to fundamentally change how diseases are treated. Dr. O’Day is also co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Biotechnology, and a member of Scientific American’s Steering Committee for the publication’s “Top 10 Emerging Technologies.” Dr. O’Day received her PhD from Harvard University, where she was a National Science Fellow, an MPhil in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Churchill Fellow, and a BS in Biochemistry from Boston College.
Lindsay Gearheart: You’ve got a pretty crazy resume and list of accomplishments. I’d typically start by asking about your background, but today I want to ask, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Dr. Elizabeth O’Day: Since an early age, I’ve always wanted to cure cancer, so being a scientist and curing cancer truly has been the only job I ever wanted to do. My brother had cancer when we were kids (he’s completely fine), but it inspired me to want to be able to do more and contribute to this area. Even as a kid, when my brothers were playing outside, I was reading books or finding journals about the latest oncology research. It’s a little bit nerdy, yes, but since the womb almost I was obsessed with curing cancer.
LG: Wow, that’s incredible. That takes a very compassionate person.
EO: If we think of life as this maze with all these different directions you can go in, right away, I was focused on what I wanted to work on and be contributing to. I felt very lucky that not only was it what I was passionate about, I was OK at it as well. With those two things moving me forward, I threw myself into it full force.
LG: What is Olaris’ mission? In particular, talk to me about what you mean by “biomarkers of response.” Why they are important?
EO: Olaris is actually a mission company, and everybody involved in the company is trying to use our technology to push the treatment of cancer forward. Hopefully this will translate into other diseases as well, but our main focus is certainly in the cancer space. We are really fortunate to live in a world where there are truly some transformative therapies out there. If you look back just 50 years ago, how we used to treat breast cancer to how we treat it now is drastically different, and thankfully so. The radical mastectomy treatment that used to be the in vogue treatment is being replaced now with more targeted treatments. which is not only improving outcomes but also reducing side effects.
But we can go even further. We have access to all these great treatments, but it’s still really difficult to figure out who should get which one and who is going to benefit from which one. That is what biomarkers of response (BOR) tell us. They explain why if two people have the same disease and were given the same drug, one person might have a great benefit and the other might not see anything happen at all. Biomarkers let us hopefully predict before treatment which group they fall into.
Also, once you’re taking the drug, we’ve all lived this experience where you go to the doctor and they give you a script and say, “Let us know how it’s going, or come back if you don’t see any improvement.” We can do more than that. We can add real quantitative data to demonstrate that the drugs or treatment are working in the way we want them to be working. That’s all that biomarkers of response capture.
LG: It sounds like you’re really empowering patients by using their data in a smart way.
EO: One of the things I think about is: Who is Olaris’ nemesis? Who are we trying to conquer or do battle with? I’ve labeled it as uncertainty. We’re trying to remove uncertainty for all the different stakeholders. Patients want to know that the drug they’re on is actually working for them, but so do all the other stakeholders in medicine. Physicians want to give their patients the most optimal treatment, but sometimes they don’t have the information to guide those decisions. So do insurance companies and pharma companies. So Olaris’ BOR technology is aimed at removing uncertainty for all these different stakeholders.
LG: Is this a new approach, or are there any competitors in this space?
EO: Predictive medicine as you know is a growing industry, and there’s a lot of great companies in this space. People like Foundation Medicine or Genomic Health are two companies that I look to as examples that have paved a good road for us to follow. Our technologies differ in where they’re looking at genes. For example in cancer, one of the first things people do now is get the tumor sequenced to identify which mutation may or may not be present in that tumor, and it can help drive therapy. I think that’s a first step that we should all take. I often get field calls or emails from people when a loved one has been diagnosed. My first recommendation is to get sequenced, start there. There’s a lot of players in that space and it’s a growing industry.
Olaris is a little bit different. One of our competitive advantages is that we go the next step. We measure metabolites, which are all the small molecules that swim around in you and I, and it’s the rate of making these molecules and breaking them down that make you, you, and me, me. They help explain why independent of a particular mutation, what is the drug that’s actually likely to work for you. It will include input from your genetic background, but also your microbiome, your environment, your diet. All the things that influence whether a drug for you will get captured in the metabolome. As far as I can tell, I think we’re some of the first movers in this space to use it for precision medicine.
I want to be clear metabolite profiling in one way, shape, or form has been around for almost forever. Ancient Egyptians used a crude form of metabolite profiling to correlate with health. They obviously didn’t know they were metabolites, but they knew the smell or color of urine correlated with different diseases. They didn’t know it was metabolites that were causing it, but that was the first iteration of metabolite profiling. We’ve advanced it from there.
LG: Earlier this month, Olaris announced that it had received a grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Can you tell me about what you plan to do with that grant?
EO: Our core platform is really agnostic to disease or drug. Basically, we have a way of identifying differences between groups of people: people treated with a drug, people who respond to a drug, or people who have a particular disease and people who do not. We’ve done some work in the Parkinson’s space with another company called Caraway Therapeutics that is developing small molecules for Parkinson’s. We’re helping them on their drug development path to understand their disease models better, understand how their drugs work, and they’re leveraging our technology in that way.
In working together, we realized our technology might have real value in just diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s affects six million people worldwide, and unfortunately, by the time the disease is diagnosed, around 90% of all the neurons in your brain that have been associated with the disease have all been lost, and it’s very unlikely we’re going to be able to grow them back. Usually there’s about 10 years of time that people spend trying to figure out what is happening. If you could diagnose the disease earlier and more quantitatively, you might be able to remove some of that uncertainty for patients and doctors, and that could hopefully lead to better treatment options. With this early work that we did with Caraway, we saw that there might be a potential play for our technology to be able to identify using metabolite signatures who are the people who have Parkinson’s disease versus people who do not. That has led to this collaboration with the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
It’s still very early days, but what we’re doing is seeing if our technology can find a signature that can differentiate PD patients versus non-PD patients. We’re just digging into the data now, but it’s promising. There’s going to be lots more work to do, and larger cohorts, and all kinds of rigorous science that we’re committed to do, but I would say it’s really promising.
LG: On the business side of things, tell me about your experience in various incubators. What have those experience been like?
EO: I’m a huge fan of the incubator scene. The Boston incubator scene has been almost an additional team member here at Olaris. We’ve marched our way through almost every incubator that’s out there, and it’s let us scale and move faster than we could have without these resources. I’m a first-time entrepreneur, young, female scientist, and that doesn’t always necessarily lead itself to big venture dollars that would be required for me to set up my own shop. Having access to these incubators, I could go in as just me, and I could rent a desk and a lab bench. Then, as we made progress, I could hire someone, and they could work in the lab, or we both could. We could grow at a scale that matched the business growth instead of having to raise all this money, build the infrastructure, and not be able to focus on the science. I think the incubator system is a great way to support entrepreneurism here in Boston.
LG: That brings up a question I wanted to ask: What are some of the challenges of being a young female CEO in Boston? I’m also curious if you’d ever thought you’d be in this position or if you planned on being completely focused on the science and tech?
EO: I never had a desire to be a CEO. Olaris is a little over five years old now, and if you had talked to me even six years ago, and told me I was going to be a CEO of a company, I would’ve said you were crazy. I have totally focused on curing cancer, and I thought the way that you did that was as a scientist. And obviously science still plays a big part of that, but now, launching the company, and realizing all the bits and pieces that have to come together for you to take great science and get it into the hands of patients, I actually enjoy and feel both lucky and a sense of responsibility to be a good CEO and continue to drive Olaris forward. Is it challenging? Yes. Emphatically, yes. But there are great resources out here, and if you dedicate yourself and you like it, and you’re willing to put in the work, I think there’s opportunities.
When I started Olaris, I was not given the title of CEO. I think the title that myself and the investors settled on was President, and maybe CSO or something. I was the only employee, so it didn’t matter what titles were. But as the company grew, and my responsibilities grew, both on the science and business sides, I realized that I liked them and I was decent at them. It’s something that I needed to work at, and I take it quite seriously. I’ve taken MBA classes online. I’m always reading books about how to grow a good company, be a good CEO, and build a good culture. I’m always trying to improve.
LG: Have mentors played a role in your growth?
EO: Yes. I feel very lucky that Boston is my home, that I grew up here, and it’s where my company is because it’s such a great place for people to launch companies. There’s great education, great investment opportunities, but really the network and the mentorship is unmatched. I wouldn’t be here today without our mentors. One person who deserves a lot of the credit is my cofounder Bob Carpenter, who is a legend in the biotech world. We met when I was not really thinking about Olaris, it was just an idea in the back of my head. We went out to lunch so I could pick his brain, and he was so generous with his time and distilled all this knowledge in me. He helped give me the confidence to start the company, so when I went back to him and said, “Hey, I’m thinking of giving this a go,” he said, “I’m in, let’s do this together.”
There are countless examples of that. Olaris’ investors, advisors, mentors, those titles all sort of blend together because each one has deep expertise in some form of biotech, and they have been so incredible and generous to pass that knowledge on to me. I’ve been eager and open to receive it as well.
I used to teach at Boston College, and a lot of my students were budding entrepreneurs. The advice I would always say is to be humble. As an entrepreneur, you’re excited and you think you can change the world, but also realize that you don’t know everything. For you to be successful, you’re going to have to learn from others. It’s important to embrace that humility and that openness to learning.
LG: Aside from Olaris, I’d love to hear about Lizzard Fashion, an apparel company you founded that uses fashion to promote science.
EO: I like to think if I wasn’t a scientist, that maybe I would’ve been a fashion designer. I really like fashion, though that doesn’t necessarily reflect in my wardrobe. I appreciate how you can see a Dior dress and the sleeves immediately reveal that it’s a Dior, or the intricacies of Alexander McQueen’s patterns, it’s almost like a fingerprint or DNA for that designer, and I love that.
I was in grad school. I think it was a Saturday afternoon, and I had spent the majority of the day locked in a dark room in the basement doing microscopy. I was looking at these images that were so strikingly beautiful: a cell dividing, going through all the steps of mitosis. And I thought, “Gosh, this would make a great scarf, or mini skirt, or dress pattern.” The idea, once set in my head, just wouldn’t leave, and I thought I’d give it a go.
I set up a website, and asked a former soccer coach of mine who also had a screen printing business if I could make some T-shirts on his printer that were very nerdy (evolutionary tree, cytokinesis, wavelengths of different light), and I put them on the website, and people bought them, which was amazing to me. It was a first foray into entrepreneurship where you could build something that other people saw value in.
Things picked up from there. I started designing for science retreats and science organizations, we started retailing in a couple of stores. Maybe this reveals a little about my personality, but once things started to pick up, I realized I had the responsibility if I was going to do this to do it right. I looked up “how to have a retail company” and it led me to a Harvard Business School professor named Walter Salmon, who was known as the “king of retail.” I was a Harvard PhD at the time, and I reached out, eager and open to learn best practices on the business and retail side of things. I asked if he would be willing to meet, and the two of us started working together. We put together an independent course study for myself and a few other HBS students, created the Lizzard business story, and it grew from there. It was a great example of reaching out to this crazy rich network that Boston offers and being open and willing to receive that type of tutelage.
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