Podcast: Altitude Lab – Giving Utah’s Early-Stage Companies a Distinct Advantage

Pete CodellaBusiness Elevated Podcast


Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 55)

This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between April Young Bennett, industry director of life sciences and healthcare innovation GOED, and Chandana Haque, executive director at Altitude Lab.

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Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.


April Young Bennett
Chandana Haque

April Young Bennett: (0:22) Welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m April Young Bennett, industry director of life sciences and healthcare innovation at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. My guest today is Chandana Haque, executive director at Altitude Lab. Welcome to the show Chandan, how are you?

Chandana Haque: (0:40) Doing great April. Thanks for having me.

April Young Bennett: (0:43) Thank you for coming. We’re so excited to have you here and we’re excited about your new lab and its recent opening. First, let’s talk a little bit about you though. Tell us, where are you from? Tell us a little bit about your background.

Chandana Haque: (0:55) I’m a transplant to Salt Lake City. I moved here from San Francisco, so like many others, I’m sure, but it was a very welcome transition. My previous experience is running product strategy at a series of startups. So I’ve seen the whole growth trajectory from an of couple person company out to an IPO company that’s successful and traded on the public markets. And it’s a joy now to transition into enabling entrepreneurship instead of being an operator.

April Young Bennett: (1:29) And that’s a great transition to talk about Altitude Lab. Can you tell us a little bit about Altitude Lab and how it began?

Chandana Haque: (1:36) Yes. Altitude Lab was born out of this gap in the landscape in Salt Lake City. We have a tailwind of innovation and excitement around entrepreneurship. And I think a big part of the Utah culture is being self-sufficient and being an entrepreneur. We are fortunate in this landscape to have about a thousand small companies operating but no glue on the life science spectrum to bring this community together. And Altitude Lab provides that for early-stage companies: a community for founders, a home to build your proof of concept and your first proof points of data so that you can attract investors and potential partners. 

And most importantly a platform for underrepresented minorities to develop their business among a supportive and collaborative group of entrepreneurs. That’s where Altitude Lab stemmed from this need. In terms of the people involved and the groups involved, were blessed to collaborate with the public and the private sector.

Keith Marmara at the University of Utah has been leading the foray into building innovative ecosystems and communities for entrepreneurs. He is the chief innovation officer at the university and currently and sits on my board. For years now, he identified the university needed something like an incubator to get companies out of the university and into a space that will enable them to grow. He teamed up with Chris Gibson at Recursion Pharma, who went through it himself. Recursion is a spin-out from the University of Utah. And about five years ago, they found themselves in the same position that many of my companies were previous to Altitude Lab, where they had a great idea but there was just no space in the valley to build a company. And so they rented a conference room at the university to do it. So Chris and Keith teamed up, we built Altitude Lab and last fall, we opened our doors in November. It’s been a ton of tailwind behind us and an exciting time to enable entrepreneurship.

April Young Bennett: (4:06) I went and visited your laboratory last week, and it’s beautiful, and it has amazing views. Can you tell us a little bit more about that lab and its amenities?

Chandana Haque: (4:17) Yeah. In the life sciences it all comes down to the central point of a laboratory. It’s one of the few industries where you can’t do much without a laboratory. So what we offer is a completely co-worked facility. That way we can maximize how many entrepreneurs we serve. We have room for up to 30 companies. 

We provide shared analytical cell biology, molecular biology equipment, as well as chemical fume hoods, and all the biosafety cabinets and overhead you think of in a lab like autoclaves, lab services, all those things. We take that out of the equation for companies who are trying to establish themselves. That means that these companies don’t need to spend their time and energy figuring out how to get expensive laboratory equipment. So, how do you get that on board or how to build a lab? These things are extremely expensive and time-consuming activities.

We take that out of the equation and now they have access to this beautiful facility in which they can just focus on innovation. So the lab itself is both molecular biology and cell culture lab. We enable BSL-2 operations, which is also unique. A lot of incubators don’t enable BSL-2. And that’s a different level of safety requirements for your general audience. And what we’re seeing is companies can do things like developing gene therapies and ways to map chemotherapy’s effectiveness. Really innovative science that was hard to establish if you were a two-person startup with maybe a hundred thousand dollars that you raised from friends and family.

April Young Bennett: (6:14) And I know that you also help these startup companies to build their companies and be able to move on. Can you tell us a little bit about the services you offer to your residents, business incubator, and accelerators?

Chandana Haque: (6:27) Yeah. So we take a mixed model. Traditional incubators provide space and they let the companies operate on their own and develop their scientific operation and business operation. Whereas accelerators often will put milestones in front of companies and work rapidly to get a company to funding.

We identify the need for Salt Lake. So we’ve blended the model in the sense that we provide the space. We have a 5,000 square foot laboratory facility, a 10,000 square foot office with event spaces, meeting rooms, and more. And that’s like the incubator component. But more importantly, we approach the programming and the acceleration component with an eye for what investors are looking for.

For example, we run biweekly pitch round tables where we hone our entrepreneurs’ pitches. We run pitch nights to bring investors to our incubator and judge our companies and give them feedback, and award prize money. We are working on workshops around funding sources, whether it’s SBIR, or traditional equity, venture capital based funding, debt, convertible debt, so that sort of education. Finally, we are focused on weaving the concepts of diversity, inclusion, representation, and equity throughout our content. We’re proud that our first group of companies is quite diverse and it’s representative of the new normal in life sciences where we have a patient population that’s going to be increasingly diverse. And so representation is where we start addressing an increasingly diverse patient population. Instead of just carving out a DNI talent acquisition workshop, we weave those concepts through how you build clinical trials. How do you do market research, so you’re making sure you address the true customer? That might be a woman of Asian descent or an African-American man in a community with less socioeconomic access to care. Those are the things that we are working through in combination with traditional entrepreneurship education.

April Young Bennett: (8:54) I mentioned your lab has beautiful mountain views. Can you tell us a little bit more about the advantages of doing business here in Utah? Why is Utah a great place to be a startup?

Chandana Haque: (9:04) I first talked to Chris Gibson about building an incubator here in 2019. What’s going on in Utah that makes this landscape particularly special? First and foremost, the data doesn’t lie. If you look at the economic reports, we’re beating out every geography in terms of employment and life sciences. That’s a 26% growth year-over-year. That’s the numbers from 2017, I believe.  We’re beating out every other geography coast-to-coast. Then there are tangible things, like an amazing research university with leaders in the world working there on the foremost technologies and research principles to find what the next generation of therapeutics will look like.

Combine that with a spirit of can-do attitude, which is unique to the community in Utah, it’s just very much one of finding a way through hardship, finding community, and connecting resources to those in need. And I experienced that firsthand when I moved here. I joined Kiln, a coworking center downtown and I immediately had dozens of entrepreneurs coming to me and saying, ‘have you met, so-and-so at the World Trade Center?’ ‘have you talked to the Core laboratories at the university?’ or ‘have you talked to these CEOs or these grant writers that can help you write your grants and?’ That’s not something I experienced in San Francisco. San Francisco will get you places, but getting access is always difficult here.

The community is opening doors for you, whether you expected it or not. So I think that’s just an intangible thing we experienced in Utah, where the whole community at large wants to grow together and enable each other.

April Young Bennett: (11:06) Yeah, it is exciting here. There’s so much cohesion. We recently started calling this the BioHive. It’s this group of industrious people just working together and building each other up. It is exciting.

Chandana Haque: (11:17) Yeah, I love that you brought up the BioHive.

April Young Bennett: (11:18) Yeah, go ahead.

Chandana Haque: (11:22) I was going to say, I love that you brought it up because the inception of BioHive was to highlight the energy around life sciences here and highlight all the people involved, all the industries involved in making this sector possible.

When we think of biotech or life science or Medtech we think of the engineers and scientists involved, and maybe even doctors and physicians. But what we don’t think of is the huge support system required to make these industries possible. You need amazing manufacturing facilities with expertise and doing high-grade, quality manufacturing. We’re talking about medical devices and therapeutics here. You can’t mess up. That’s something Utah has in spades. We have legal services, accountants, and marketing services that know how to work with life science companies. So there’s just a huge support network of both experts in terms of scientists and healthcare providers. Professional services make this industry possible. And BioHive is really highlighting that work.

April Young Bennett: (12:37) We talked about how you have your first cohort of people working at the Altitude Lab. Can you tell us a little bit about those people? Who joined Altitude Lab already?

Chandana Haque: (12:50) It’s a very proud moment. One of the things we discussed early on in developing Altitude Lab was who’s the audience? Who are we trying to serve? It became apparent that in this sector, it may surprise some of you that almost 50% of scientists in life sciences are women. And yet, when you get to executive levels of leadership, only about 12% are women. At that simple demographic level, we see the discrepancy. These are highly educated, Ph.D. earning, or women doctors that just aren’t making it up to the executive level.

And those statistics continue when you go into black, Latino and LGBTQ. And yet, when you look at leadership positions, it is just 1%. It was clear that in building Altitude Lab, we had to consider two parts. First, the data doesn’t lie. McKinsey has done several reports on this. Diverse companies produce better financial results, more creative solutions, and more innovative companies. That’s been in the data for McKinsey for at least six years.

The second inevitable conclusion is our patient population is transitioning. If you look at those under 16 in the U.S., we’re already at 50.3% ethnic minorities. And that trend is not going away and it means the patient population this industry treats is going to be increasingly diverse. Doing things status quo, designing clinical trials the way we have in the past without an eye towards representation, will not benefit this population the way that previous generations naively thought we would be able to go through. With that in mind, we built Altitude Lab with a goal that 50% of our companies must be led by at least one minority or women executive or founder.

When I first started this everyone asked me is there that kind of diversity in Utah? I can resoundingly tell you there is. We beat that goal. It was insane the response we had when we started talking about the need for diversity. We received applications from across the globe, as far away as Singapore. Understanding there was a need and a community that these women and minority leaders wanted to be part of. So all that said, we have 80% of our companies are women and minority-led. Very exciting. And they’re successful.

One of our first companies, Known Medicine, are two women leaders,  Andrea and Katie Rose. They are CEO and CTO co-founders, and Coastal Ventures led their first seed round. In Utah, we have the talent and diversity. And that’s just one example.

Do you want to know a little bit about the companies? I get excited about diversity.

April Young Bennett: (16:28) Yes.

Chandana Haque: (16:28) I’ll start with Known Medicine since we brought them up. Known Medicine is building mini-organ models to model how chemotherapies are efficacious across different patient profiles. They’ve worked mostly with solid tumors and they profile chemotherapies against patient samples to educate doctors and physicians on which treatment course to go after. They employ data science in their methodology. So it’s an exciting blend of biology and technology that they’re employing. 

The other company is NexEos Bio. They are working on an imaging agent that displaces a really painful endoscopy that’s traditionally used to image your throat and gut so they can see lesions in your throat and gut. So that one, also extremely innovative technology, spun out of the university. And Theresa is a female CEO and she has a strong team.

PEEL Therapeutics are inspired by phenomenons in nature to develop several different therapeutics. Some of their leading pipelines around oncology and COVID led by Joshua Schiffman, head of pediatric oncology at the Huntsman Institute.

And TeikoBio. They are working on profiling cells in patients to characterize the immune response to chemotherapies and immunotherapies. Ramji Srinivasan is the previous CEO and founder of Counsyl, which was acquired by Myriad in 2017 and moved TeikoBio to a new venture here to Salt Lake City. 

These are exciting examples of companies recognizing this is a growing region. There are about five more companies that are doing exciting work a lot around oncology immunology and they are geared to patient results. 

April Young Bennett: (18:44) Thank you so much for being with us today. I’m so excited about your lab and it’s just a great addition to our BioHive. 

Chandana Haque: (18:53) I’m just thrilled to be part of such a growth ecosystem. It was fun being part of growing companies, and now I get to grow companies in growing geography. It’s a dream come true to work.  And I look forward to meeting entrepreneurs that come our way.


Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.