Timothy Day, PhD and UC Berkeley alumnus, is the co-founder and chief scientific officer (CSO) of DNALite Therapeutics. Day will be QB3-Berkeley’s Professional in Residence on April 5, 2022. In an interview with graduate student Leah Gulyas, Day traced his path to entrepreneurship from growing up in Kansas with the goal of pursuing medicine to his current role as a PhD scientist whose company is developing novel gene therapy delivery strategies for the gastrointestinal tract. Students and postdocs can register for Day’s PIR visit here.
Leah Gulyas: Could you share your background, including where you’re from, and how you ended up where you are now?
Timothy Day: I was raised in Kansas and went to undergrad at the University of Kansas where I majored in biology, and I had an interest in science and medicine. Like a lot of people who have that interest, you have the social reinforcement of becoming a doctor. So, I had that idea and did shadowing, then realized that it wasn’t the best fit for me. But during that time, I started working in a science lab, initially with the idea that it was going to boost my med school resume. I really liked the science, and I also had a connection to genetic diseases, and family members with other diseases. Learning about those diseases that don’t have any treatments, you know it doesn’t really make a difference—if you’re a doctor, there’s nothing to prescribe or to fix it. That kept my interest a lot in more translational science and medicine.
Even though Berkeley is not traditionally a very translational science university, with AAV [adenovirus-associated virus] and now CRISPR, there’s definitely still that kind of foundational research that leads to translation. I gravitated towards that and after having a good experience during a summer program at UC Berkeley, I came back for graduate school and did the neuroscience program. I was in John Flannery’s and Dave Schaffer’s labs and saw them both start companies and saw some of my other peers start companies. It was also when everybody had an app company and a startup, so there was very much a startup culture. I also had that thing in the back of my mind about a patent from undergrad that went nowhere (we made a molecule slightly less toxic and patented it, but then it sat on a shelf and didn’t actually have a practical outcome), so I think that led me to explore entrepreneurship.
I explored it for a year and a half or so, kind of dabbled with a couple of classes or meetups or trying to talk to people trying to learn: How does this actually work? Then at the end of that experience I met my co-founder Mubhij Ahmad in graduate school. He had an idea for doing gene therapy in the gastrointestinal tract; my PhD was delivering it to the eye, so we thought, “Okay, let’s figure out how to deliver it to a different tissue.”
Then we applied to IndieBio as an accelerator program. I took a leave of absence from my PhD to pursue that for the summer, and I was fortunate to have PIs that were very supportive. We were able to generate data that was compelling enough to get venture capitalists to invest in our company, DNALite. That also timed nicely with me graduating, so I transitioned full-time to doing this company. So that’s the “From Kansas to Mission Bay” story.
LG: Wow! How did you balance all of that alongside your PhD?
TD: Spending a lot of nights and weekends, especially when we were starting the company, because we were not a lab spin out. It was our own idea, so we had to get outside funding, we had to find spaces where we could, as a commercial entity, operate, and we were trying to apply for grants. We were also very naïve, thinking “Oh we’re right next to Silicon Valley and we have this cool idea—let’s just go pitch investors!” We pitched investors with no data, no plan, nothing. I learned that you can approach these people, because we talked to a large number of them. But pretty much all of them told us in nice ways “Look, you guys have to have something more than an idea—everybody has an idea, but you have to make it more practical.”
LG: What does your day-to-day looks like now as the CSO of DNALite?
TD: I’m the on the science side, so my day-to-day is definitely managing the scientific activities and making sure that people have what they need to do the experiments to reach our scientific goals. It’s a lot of planning the experiments with people, reviewing data, analyzing it, helping them… We’re also always talking to different potential partners. You might be talking to a pharmaceutical company, your current investors or future potential investors, or to vendors and suppliers. It’s also talking to scientists and doctors and other people, talking to manufacturers to be able to scale things, talking to our IP [intellectual property] people here. I’m more inward facing, helping the team day-to-day, whereas my co-founder, Mubhij, is more outward facing, so he does more of the initial investor calls and partnership management.
LG: What then would you say is your favorite part of running DNALite and what’s the biggest challenge?
TD: My favorite parts are: One, working with the team. I like working in a team context, where we’re trying to accomplish a goal together and different people are contributing to the overall goal. And two, I like reaching out to new scientists or investors, and then talking about what we’re trying to do and finding other like-minded people. It’s really fun to find people who are interested in your technology or want to work with you together on it.
The biggest challenge? Juggling a lot of different things—there’s a side of it that’s fun, because there’s a lot of stimuli and a lot of variety—but when you’re really slammed, managing that or losing sleep over different speed bumps that you hit is probably my least favorite part. But that’s what makes it interesting; if it wasn’t painful sometimes, the fun times wouldn’t be as good!
LG: How do you communicate with the scientists on your team in an area where you have expertise, as well as talk to investors who may know nothing about what you’re doing?
TD: The best analogy I’ve heard is it’s like Google maps where you zoom in and out of depth. There’re parts of the globe that are grayed out for me, but at a high at a high level, I can talk about everything that is relevant to the company. I have to be able to talk about everything because there are times where we have multiple pitch meetings scheduled at the same time, so I have to be comfortable pitching the business part and IP part as well.
It’s really trying to know your audience and doing your homework. With investors or other scientists, you kind of know angles that you could take if you’re talking to an immunologist or deep biotech investor versus a tech investor who’s going into biotech for the first time.
I think that’s my job—to try to be perceptive enough to try to meet people where they’re at and not fall into the temptation to BS in places that I don’t know. Because if you do that and get called out, you lose all trust, so I think it’s okay to say, “I don’t know or I will find out.”
But then that’s a great thing about having a team. Yeah, I don’t have as much in-depth understanding about mucosal immunology, but we do have a PhD scientist who did that at Harvard for his post-doc—let’s talk to him on the next call!
My job is to try and meet the people where they are and to communicate effectively. The more I can do that the more I make my own life easier, especially for investors. They’re hearing hundreds of pitches, and if you have this complex, nuanced solution, they might just take one piece of that’s not even the right piece…boil it down and have your messaging, and then you can dive into some deep things. Sometimes it’s a good strategy to dive in deep to show “Look, I know this stuff,” and then go back up.
Timothy Day is the co-founder and CSO of DNALite Therapeutics, which is developing gene therapies for oral delivery in the treatment of gastrointestinal tract diseases. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in Microbiology at the University of Kansas, he completed his PhD in Neuroscience (’17) in the laboratories of John Flannery and David Schaffer at UC Berkeley, where he worked on gene therapy delivery to the eye. Day has participated in several incubator programs for entrepreneurs including the CITRIS Foundry, Launch, and IndieBio during DNALite’s growth.
Leah Gulyas is a PhD candidate in Plant and Microbial Biology in Britt Glaunsinger’s lab. Her research aims at understanding the manipulation of host transcriptional machinery during viral infection.