Alumni Profile: D.J. Kleinbaum’s Journey to Co-founding Emerald Therapeutics -Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Alumni Profile: D.J. Kleinbaum’s Journey to Co-founding Emerald Therapeutics

Wanted: Passionate, creative-thinking problem-solvers interested in disrupting the traditional landscape of biotechnology.

Emerald Therapeutics is doing just that. Co-founded by alumni D.J. Kleinbaum and Brian Frezza, the company is taking an interdisciplinary approach to solving the problem of persistent viral infections that the body cannot clear on its own. The three-year old Silicon Valley startup is looking to revolutionize the biotechnology industry. Kleinbaum credits much of Emerald Therapeutics’s early success to the time he spent as a biological sciences student at Carnegie Mellon University.

In Fall 2001, Kleinbaum began his undergraduate studies within CMU’s Department of Biological Sciences by enrolling in the innovative and rigorous computational biology program. His high school friend Frezza enrolled as well. The computational biology major prepares students to use computer science principles to explore biology. However, as his studies progressed, Kleinbaum found himself moving away from programming and devoting more time to biological sciences and chemistry.

In order to find his true interests and gain hands-on experience, he also worked in Dr. Bill Brown’s laboratory engineering antibodies to act as environmentally sensitive fluorescent biosensors. He created a program to analyze 3D protein structures and identify candidate residues to which fluorophores could be covalently attached. Next, he spent months on bioconjugation experiments to test his predictions. Kleinbaum says “He [Brown] was an amazing mentor, and part of the fact that the research followed my interests was that he could see my interests changing. He was willing to let me follow the parts of the project that I was the most passionate about, which was hugely valuable.” There is no doubt in Kleinbaum’s mind that undergraduate research taught him to troubleshoot—a skill Emerald values immensely. Kleinbaum graduated from CMU in 2005 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and chemistry minor.

Though he was anxious to enter the biotechnology industry following graduation, a Ph.D. was considered essential at the time so Kleinbaum joined a chemistry lab at Stanford University for further education. Meanwhile, Kleinbaum remained in close contact with Frezza, who also moved west to join The Scripps Research Institute. The pair soon returned to their dream of opening a lab—it was just a matter of waiting for the right time.

The right time proved to be following their doctoral graduations in 2010; they began in earnest only to find that a biology-based start-up is an expensive venture. Kleinbaum and Frezza found themselves in a catch-22 situation: wooing investors and purchasing equipment required preliminary results, which they couldn’t provide without a lab.

Luckily, CMU came to rescue. With the help of Biological Sciences Professor John Woolford, Kleinbaum and Frezza prepared to sign an agreement with CMU to run Emerald Therapeutics out of the Mellon Institute. In May 2010, Kleinbaum and Frezza sold their furniture, packed up their cars, and mapped out the route to Pittsburgh.

But, life is full of surprises. On the same day that they planned to leave, Kleinbaum received an invitation to a meeting with a venture capital firm. Still intending to hit the road that night, the two dug out their suits from boxes. After the meeting, the investor convinced the pair to remain in Palo Alto for another week. The week became a month as the pair continued to generate interest among investors. When investor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel came on board, they knew that there was no going back. Emerald Therapeutics officially opened in September 2010 in Menlo Park, Calif.

In addition to working with viral infections, Emerald Therapeutics is interested in bringing process automation and robotics to mainstream scientific research. The company developed an internal product, “Symbolic Lab Language (SLL),” out of a need to maximize the effectiveness of their lean workforce. SLL, layered on top of the Mathematica programming language, standardizes protocols, controls instrumentation, parses experimental outputs, and presents and analyzes data. This allows Emerald’s scientists and engineers to control a large number of accurate and reproducible experiments at once.

Kleinbaum encourages students interested in entrepreneurship to get early exposure to industry. He admits that Emerald Therapeutics preferentially seeks CMU students. “At CMU,” he says “there’s no fear of crossing disciplines, and that is our most valuable asset.”

By: Mridula Nadamuni, Senior