Biotech grads accelerate research for inventive stem cell startup

Ever since February, the daily routine has been the exact same.

Each morning, Mardonn Chua and Darson Du enter the temporary digs of Extem Bioscience Corp. in downtown San Francisco around 8 am. On a good day they are home by midnight. With only 100 days to conduct research – and ultimately create a viable business – the two 23-year-old BCIT Biotech grads are in the lab working against the clock.

“For one project recently, I think we spent 30-straight hours here,” said Mardonn, a Vancouver native. “It’s what has to be done if we want to get the next round of funding.”

The life is not glamorous, but the payoff perhaps could be.

After both graduated from BCIT/UBC’s joint 5-year Biotechnology program in May, 2014, the duo combined forces to conduct inventive human stem cell research that could revolutionize the way the medical industry tests their products. In essence, they want to create the world’s first human stem cell library, where they will store stem cells in bulk from every key demographic of the population.

“When they did disclose what the innovative part of their technology was to us, we were like ‘wow, that’s a great idea and nobody is really doing that,” said Joan Shellard, a Research Scientist and part-time Instructor in the Biotechnology Program at BCIT. “Darson and Mardonn are finding a very particular niche. If it works, they have a really great thing.”

For the first 8 months of their research, the two rented lab space and equipment at BCIT on their own dime. At BCIT, they were also able to pick the brains of BCIT’s seasoned Biotech researchers.

“Joan and Sarah (McLeod) have a wealth of information, they have an answer to every question, almost instantly,” said Mardonn. “I can’t emphasize enough that without BCIT’s lab space and all the help Joan and Sarah gave us, we wouldn’t be here.”

During that period, they also heard about a San Francisco-based biotech accelerator, which funds and supports startup ideas in the biotech field. The accelerator was sponsored by SOSventures, a venture capital and investment management firm that provides seed money for tech startups.

They interviewed with SOSventures – who in the past have provided funding for Netflix and Harmonix – in December 2014, and it wasn’t long for the firm to recognize the pair’s potential.

“I think the thing that got them interested was basically how far we had come on our own in such a short time,” recalls Mardonn. “I remember the directors were like, ‘so you just spent your own money and rented a lab and did it yourselves?’”

He added, “They basically decided to fund us on the spot.”

Less than two months later, Darson and Mardonn were living in the Bay Area, with over $100,000 USD in startup capital (in exchange for a stake in the ownership of Extem Bioscience) and a high-tech lab to work in. The catch? The company only has 100 days to get its business to a point where venture capitalists are convinced to continue funding them.

Extem Bioscience is one of 12 teams picked for the accelerator. It is a stressful process for these first time entrepreneurs, but they are aware that their well-rounded education helped them prepare them for this moment.

“It really helped that we did take some business courses like marketing and accounting, which was part of the structure of the Biotech Degree Program at BCIT and UBC,” said Mardonn, who also emphasized that they have had to learn on the fly. “There’s a lot of mistakes we made along the way, but it was just learning from experience.”

Although she is one of their biggest advocates, Joan knows that the pending success of Extem is dependent on unforeseeable factors.

“I don’t think it’s a question about whether they have the right idea or what it takes to succeed,” she said. “The risk is whether the cells will behave in the way they want them to.”

Whether Darson and Mardonn are the next Silicon Valley all-stars remains to be seen. But Joan sees nothing but upside for the two former BCIT students: Darson, the studious and creative lab specialist, and Mardonn the self-driven entrepreneur with a huge work ethic and people skills.

“I took a course once on what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and the two have all of those traits,” said Joan. “I think they’re incredibly focused and they have been able to sustain it for long periods of time without exhausting themselves.”

“I don’t think they sleep a whole lot.”