One of the most exciting areas of innovation in the biotech sector in recent years has been the development of novel gene-delivery vehicles used in cell- and gene-based therapies. However, siloed investments in individual drug developer biotech companies have driven up development and delivery costs, posed barriers to innovation, and created a situation where similar problems are being solved multiple times thereby increasing the time it takes to bring new drugs to market.

To catalyze the path from bench to bedside and lower the costs for drug developers as well as patients, Josh Leonard, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University, launched Syenex with business partners Jay Rosanelli and Jack Lin in early 2022.

“Syenex’s mission is to create innovative, best-in-class delivery technologies that are universally accessible to enable the entire field of gene- and cell-therapy developers,” says Leonard, a member of the Center for Synthetic Biology.

Leonard is at the forefront of design-driven medicine. One area of interest is vesicle engineering, an approach that produces highly functionalized biological nanoparticles to serve as medicine and gene delivery agents. This technology can be applied to enable both established and emerging gene delivery industries. Last year, Leonard took an entrepreneurial leave to help build Syenex’s research operations in its new physical space in Northwestern’s Querrey InQbation Lab located at 1801 Maple Ave in Evanston, IL.  As co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, he worked with the growing team to build out cutting-edge scientific and technological capabilities powered by synthetic biology, to create the first generation of products, and to partner with commercial and academic drug developers to validate the company’s technology.

“One fun lesson has been that a lot of the experience one gains running a lab as a PI translates very nicely to building research activities at a startup,” says Leonard. “Another great facet of the entrepreneurial leave mechanism is that these experiences mutually benefit my roles at Northwestern. In my case, the startup experience adds much to what I bring to my role as director of the Biotechnology Training Program. InQbation Lab has also been uniquely useful for those of us in the Center for Synthetic Biology who work at this interface of research and translation to make connections with other entrepreneurs and investors as often as we can.”

Throughout 2023, Syenex scaled up its operations, completed critical validation case studies of its initial delivery vehicles, and is continuing to grow.

“As is the case for many synthetic biology startups, what we are spinning out is more than a single technology – it’s broad-reaching domain expertise that enables us to create many solutions. At Syenex, we’re building something like an app store for the whole community of cell and gene therapy developers,” says Leonard.

The company’s business model is informed by lessons gleaned from the tech sector, which experienced a huge boom in the past two decades. Leonard believes that creating improvements in delivery technologies and making them broadly accessible will reduce costs of both development and manufacturing, ultimately benefiting patients.

“Syenex’s ‘raison d’etre’ is to rewrite the playbook for developing advanced biological medicines. The current cost structures pose a barrier to innovation and slow the creation of life changing medicines, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” said Leonard. “There’s a huge opportunity to create value and to benefit society by addressing this outstanding need.”

Story and photograph by Lisa La Vallee