A stalwart of Pittsburgh supercomputing has left academia for the unpredictability of the startup world.
Fast growing biotech startup Peptilogics named Nicholas Nystrom as its first CTO this week, following an announcement earlier this month that the company’s lead peptide therapeutic product, PLG0206, received FDA clearance to begin Phase 1b clinical trials.
Nystrom’s promotion comes after a year of working as Peptilogics’ SVP and head of computation and data. Prior to joining the startup in January 2021, Nystrom worked at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) for almost 30 years, first spearheading strategic applications there before become the senior director of research and finally, the center’s chief scientist. He holds a BS in chemistry and math from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a Ph.D. from the university in computational chemistry.
While at the PSC, which is a joint computational research institution of Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, “I designed and built supercomputers that pioneered the convergence of artificial intelligence, high performance computing and big data,” Nystrom told Technical.ly. “That was new at the time. That was around 2014, before people actually started talking about bringing these things together.”
While Nystrom's previous work developed important research tools for scientists to use worldwide, his new focus on drug development at Peptilogics feels more directly impactful.
Nystrom said he and his team were able to create systems that increased the rate of finding a solution to a given problem by a factor 10 or 100, or sometimes even 1,000. And that’s the foundation of Peptilogics’ approach to drug development, he said: While PLG0206 was developed in the traditional discovery way by the startup’s founder and CEO Jonathan Steckbeck, Nystrom will be leading the development of even more peptide-based therapeutics for a wide variety of different indications.
The hope is that the foundation of computational and AI-based research that Nystrom started at the PSC will enable Peptilogics to lower the time and money needed for drugs, and especially in the largely unexplored realm of peptide therapeutics, which many researchers believe have a strong future.
That’s behind much of Nystrom’s decision to take a position at a young startup after working in academia for nearly three decades. While he said his previous work helped develop important research tools for scientists to use worldwide, his new focus on drug development at Peptilogics feels more directly impactful.
“Ultimately, I like to wake up and realize that what I’m doing will make a difference in people’s lives,” Nystrom said. The startup has the talent and resources it needs to “go from what started as a great academic research project, but we’d like to take that all the way to be real drugs for real diseases, and that’s what makes it really exciting for me.”
Still, Nystrom’s decision to join Peptilogics, which has only completed Phase 1a clinical trials so far, is interesting given the stability of his previous positions at PSC. It begs the question: Why a startup, as opposed to a larger and more established company doing similarly innovative work?
"In the startup, we have the opportunity to do things a brand new way and invent something that's never been done before."
Nystrom shied away from the corporation route, he said, “because in the startup, we have the opportunity to do things a brand new way and invent something that’s never been done before.” And while there’s also some possibility for that at the corporation level, it typically doesn’t happen with the ease and efficiency of an innovation-minded startup.
It’s a significant choice to move to a life sciences startup in a city whose ecosystem for that sector is still emerging. Nystrom emphasized the risk of joining a startup rarely crosses his mind, despite the overwhelming 90% failure rate that small businesses face. Instead, he said he’s so enthralled by the mission and the potential of Peptilogics that what’s top of mind is how to better advance potential drug candidates.
While Nystrom’s decision to join the company speaks volumes to the value of its technology, it’s also a sign of hope for the Pittsburgh life sciences industry in general. Though Pittsburgh has long had a prominent medical school through Pitt, and healthcare expertise from UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, there’s been little attempt at commercializing that research prowess. That’s been something local industry experts continually point to as a factor holding Pittsburgh back in life sciences innovation.
Nystrom, who joined Peptilogics after a long tenure at one of those research-minded institutions, encourages others in Pittsburgh to make a change to entrepreneurship.
“The opportunities to contribute in ways that lead to tangible, meaningful outcomes are absolutely worth it because it’s an exciting, extremely results-oriented environment,” he said. “So I think the opportunity to do phenomenal research continue, except now they also have a very strong outcome in terms of being able to have an immediate impact.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.