More than 20 years ago, Claudia Mitchell arrived in Paris to pursue a doctorate degree in molecular biology — with a 4-month-old baby in tow. She had no close friends or family in the city.
“People say that it’s tough to be a single mom and people say that it’s tough to go through a Ph.D. program. I did both, in a new country for me at a time. And after having done that, I feel like I could do anything else and succeed,” Mitchell said.
She went on to become a tenured geneticist at INSERM, the French National Institutes of Health and Medical Research. But just 10 years later, she abandoned academia and her research career to become an entrepreneur.
Mitchell went on to co-found and serve as CEO for Universal Cells, a company developing universal donor cell technology. The Seattle-based startup raised just $300,000 and was acquired by Astellas Pharma in February for $102 million. She remains the COO of the company.
“I remember the day when the payment from the acquisition arrived in my bank account,” Mitchell said. “The moment I thought of was a moment in Paris, coming back home with [my daughter] in a stroller and looking through the glass of a bakery and saying: ‘Well, am I going to buy a baguette?’ And I said: ‘No, I don’t have money for the baguette. I’m going to save for diapers.'”
The acquisition helped Mitchell win recognition as EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year for the Pacific Northwest in the Life Sciences category this year. And it’s just one of the fascinating twists and turns in her entrepreneurial journey.
We interview Mitchell about her story on the latest episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast. Listen to the episode in the player below or subscribe to Health Tech in your favorite podcast app to listen on the go.
A chance encounter
Mitchell traces the start of her entrepreneurial journey back to a chance encounter on an airplane, years after she had completed her Ph.D. program. At the time, Mitchell had realized that academia was not her calling and was considering leaving the field.
She happened to sit next to an aeronautical engineer who told her he went back to school to earn his MBA at age 35. He had since become an entrepreneur.
“It was funny — I was 35, and I was thinking about moving and doing something else,” Mitchell said. “And I remember when the plane landed … my husband picked me up at the airport and the first thing I told him was: ‘I’m going to do an MBA.’ And that very evening I had already looked up the programs, had found the program that I wanted to pursue and a couple months later I was starting my MBA program.”
Mitchell said that moment of action is typical of her decision-making process.
“I scan, and scan, and scan — and then when I make a decision, I’m very determined. I go for it. I have no doubts,” she said.
When she was taking part in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year competition, she was asked what she wished she knew before she started on her entrepreneurial journey.
“My answer was I wished I knew to follow my intuition every time, because I think my intuition has always been spot on,” she said.
After completing her MBA program, Mitchell’s intuition brought her back to Seattle, where she co-founded a biotechnology company called Halo-Bio RNAi Therapeutics. She served as the company’s chief scientific officer for a few years, before it pivoted to focus on agricultural science, an area that Mitchell didn’t have expertise in.
She then spent a few years running the research branch of a nonprofit, but she was soon looking for her next startup. She found it in David Russell, a University of Washington professor who had developed a new way to modify stem cells so they are universally compatible.
Stem cells are a key element of cell therapies, medicines that use a whole living cell to fight a disease. Bone marrow transplants, a common treatment for leukemia and other blood cancers, is a good example, as are the newly emerging CAR T immunotherapies.
Because stem cells can grow into any kind of cell, they can be used to create new tissue or cells that fight disease, for a few examples.
Cell therapies fall into two categories: Ones that use the patient’s own cells, called autologous treatments, and those that use other people’s cells, called allogeneic treatments. There are scientific hurdles and potential dangers to each type of therapy and both of them are complicated and costly procedures.
Mitchell said Universal Cell’s technology could change all of that.
“It is a big deal because, when you’re trying to make therapies, if you’re having to take [cells] from each patient, then manipulate them in the lab and then put [them] back, that costs a lot of money. It’s very complex,” Mitchell said.
The obvious solution is to use cells donated from other people. But every cell made by our bodies carries certain markers that signal it is “ours.” Unless two people have very similar sets of markers, the recipient’s immune system will attack the donor cells, leading to devastating physical side effects.
Russell’s technology effectively erases the markers on stem cells and makes them “invisible” to the immune system, meaning anyone could receive them as part of a cell therapy. Mitchell said this could drastically reduce the complexity, cost and unpredictability of making cell therapies.
It could also open the door to create entirely new kinds of therapies, even for diseases that are currently viewed as incurable.
“One example that I like, and I think that it would be a great application for our universal donor cells, is type one diabetes,” Mitchell said. Type one diabetes is an auto-immune disease where a person’s immune system attacks their beta pancreatic cells, which produce insulin.
“If you were to make beta pancreatic cells out of universal donor stem cells, the patient’s bodies wouldn’t reject these cells,” Mitchell said. “They are also invisible to their autoimmunity. So they could be cured.”
Other companies are also looking at ways to cure type one diabetes using stem cell technology.
The $100 million acquisition
Universal Cells raised just $300,000 in seed funding in its lifetime. In January, Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma bought it for $100 million, a remarkable exit for the young company.
Mitchell said Astellas, which had a pre-existing partnership with Universal Cells, approached them with the offer of an acquisition. She said the timing just made sense, given the company’s goals.
“They have the funds necessary to pursue our vision in a way that it would be much harder if you had to do it or either organically or through venture capital funding. So we felt that it was the right timing for the acquisition because they would be able to take the baton and run with it,” Mitchell said.
Through the turmoil of her academic career, her turn to entrepreneurship, and the eventual success of Universal Cells, Mitchell has raised a family with her husband and cared for her parents in Brazil, both of whom passed away this year. She has a 13-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter — the same daughter who came with her to Paris.
Her daughter is now studying music in college, and Mitchell said her own experience with resilience is the best lesson she can hope to leave for her children.
“She has seen all the stages and how hard it has been and she’s lived through all the difficulties with me,” Mitchell said. “I think it was the biggest gift to her that I could ever have given, and a life lesson — to never give up.”