Running A Life Science R&D Business with Dr. Aaron Sato, CSO of Twist Biopharma

BY Aaron Steger
June 11, 2020

This is the second article in a three-part series of Q&A conversations with Dr. Aaron Sato, CSO of Twist Biopharma, a division of Twist Bioscience. Part one focused on how Twist is adapting to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and appeared in the spring edition of Benchtalk Journal. Part three will focus on Dr. Sato’s career as well as the unique approach Twist Biopharma is taking to antibody discovery and will appear in the fall edition of Benchtalk Journal.

Running A Life Science R&D Business with Dr. Aaron Sato, CSO of Twist Biopharma

Dr. Aaron Sato is the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of Twist Biopharma, a division of Twist Bioscience, where he is leading the biologics drug discovery program. Prior to Twist Bioscience, he led the California Antibody Center as CSO of LakePharma, which discovers novel antibody therapeutics for its clients. This was preceded by senior leadership positions at Surrozen, Sutro Biopharma, OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, and Dyax Corporation. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in biological chemistry where he studied the structure – function relationship of proteins. He has dedicated his career to protein engineering and antibody discovery and is an author of over 30 peer reviewed papers and 40 issued patents in the antibody space.

Twist Bioscience is a leading and rapidly growing synthetic biology and genomics company that has developed a disruptive DNA synthesis platform to industrialize the engineering of biology. The core of the platform is a proprietary technology that pioneers a new method of manufacturing synthetic DNA by “writing” DNA on a silicon chip. Twist is leveraging its unique technology to manufacture a broad range of synthetic DNA-based products, including synthetic genes, tools for next-generation sequencing (NGS) preparation, and antibody libraries for drug discovery and development. Twist is also pursuing longer-term opportunities in digital data storage in DNA and biologics drug discovery.

We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Sato to hear his thoughts on what makes Twist Biopharma different from other antibody discovery companies and how he approaches running a life sciences R&D business.

Developing a competitive advantage

Q: What makes Twist Biopharma different from other companies in this space?

I think it all stems from the fact that we are part of the larger Twist Bioscience organization. There are a number of antibody discovery companies that have created great workflows to help folks discover and optimize their candidates, but most of them are smaller shops. They don’t reside in a larger company like Twist Biopharma does. So, I get the best of both worlds: the agility of leading a small team which is almost like a startup, and the resources and operational efficiencies of a larger company like Twist.

On the technology side, we’re building a whole suite of different antibody libraries. I call it our “Library of Libraries.” Because Twist has the ability to make DNA so quickly, we can make numerous libraries on a monthly basis and continue to expand the space that we can pan and screen. A second major advantage of our platform is that we are able to utilize Twist oligo pools to generate our libraries. This allows us to make much higher quality libraries when compared to the standard libraries that rely on degenerate oligos.

“In the past, building a library might take almost a year. You would probably just build one, and then you would just use it over and over for lots of different partners. Although that’s still a valid approach, we have the ability to make large numbers of different libraries based on different diversities and scaffolds!”
For the first time in my career, I also have access to an automation team. Now I can automate any process in the workflow, which allows us to not only make things faster, but also allows us to be more conscious of our resources and avoid needing to hire tons of people.

Even the HR team is a huge operational advantage because they recruit and hire top talent for Twist Biopharma, which allows my team to focus on science. We’re also able to leverage Twist’s marketing team to help craft messaging for conferences and other presentations.

Lastly, since Twist Bioscience has already built the muscle to track many of the key business success metrics, I’m able to apply those same metrics to the biopharma organization. That gives us a lot of great tools to monitor how well we’re doing from a revenue and reputation standpoint as well as track orders and future business as that’s coming in to fuel the pipeline.

Running a successful life science business

Q: What do you see as the pillars of a successful biotech startup?

For me, it starts with a good biology/disease focus. You have to understand the space that you’re working in and have expertise around the disease and biology that you’re trying to target. Second, you need to have a really fantastic technology to develop drugs against that disease and biology. And then the third is, which to me is almost as equally important as the other two, is you have to have great people. If you can’t utilize that technology and push it forward against that disease, then you’re not going to succeed. So I think biology, technology and people are the key pillars for me.

I’ve been really fortunate to know a lot of great people throughout my career. So everywhere I go, I tend to bring a lot of those folks along with me, which has allowed me to really fulfill the people part of the equation quite easily. Coupling that network with a fantastic hiring machine at Twist has allowed me to create a great workforce of people on my current team, in my current role.

Q: What does the sales process look like?

Everything we do is a partnership project base. Rather than use Twist’s existing database of potential customers for selling DNA products, we’re leveraging a biopharma-specific business development team that’s laser focused on signing higher level service projects with pharma and biotech partners. We’ll certainly partner with the Twist sales team for lead generation because they’re constantly interacting with key customers and they want to help us succeed, but we have a separate group that comes up with term sheets, project proposals, contracts and managing the projects once they are signed.

The arc of these projects is a lot longer than a typical product sale. Because of the complexity, confirming the project can require many conversations prior to signing, and then once we sign it, then the actual work necessitates a couple quarters for completion. So from the initial time you talk to somebody to actually completing the project, it can take up to a year or more.

Q: Who is your ideal customer and how has that informed your approach to entering the market?

We’re very open to working with a wide range of companies, but initially we have been targeting smaller companies that maybe only have a small staff, or have a narrow focus on a particular biology, that need help in the biologics discovery space. Another target are virtual companies, who don’t have any lab at all, and we want to focus on providing a partnership where we work together and collaborate to help them achieve their goals.

As we deliver great results with these smaller and virtual companies and those results become public, that will provide additional validation of our business, and I expect some of the bigger players, especially in pharma, will get really excited about what we’re doing. To date, smaller companies see the real strength of our platform and what we can deliver as well as the expertise that we can bring forward.
“One plus one can often equal more than two when you’re partnering with outside companies on technology because a lot of exciting discoveries are often made that weren’t the original focus of the collaboration.”

They see us as a value-added partner in their process to discover and optimize antibodies and not just a pair of hands. As we add more validation, I expect we will begin to partner with larger organizations that need demonstrated proof of concept for our biopharma organization.

Q: What are the next big business goals for Twist Biopharma?

I think there are really two things that we want to focus on, the first of which is showing how we are differentiated from other companies that offer similar types of antibody discovery services. We are crystalizing our messaging now in a cross functional effort with the marketing team.

And second, from a research perspective, the next evolution for us is, “Can we actually create valuable things from our platform that we might be able to out license or sell to others?” Down the road there could potentially be a lot of upside for us on that front.

The best application of synthetic antibody phage display libraries are really tough targets and really tough challenges. But, we like these projects and problems because when you solve them you feel really good about what you’ve done. It’s a unique challenge, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to really show the power of our technology platform.

Published by Aaron Steger
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