How diversity, inclusion help one company turn sci-fi into sci-fact

By Samantha Black, PhD, ScienceBoard editor in chief

March 3, 2022 -- Juliana Blum, PhD, co-founder and executive vice president of corporate development at Humacyte, spoke with ScienceBoard about diversity and inclusion in the life sciences, especially about being a woman in science.

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Tell us a little bit about your company and the unique role that write plays in the biotech and pharma space.

Humacyte is a category-defining organization. We're really the first to demonstrate the possibility of regenerative medicine. We have a human acellular tissue engineering platform that creates acellular human tissues for implants that once implanted into the patient, they remodel and regenerate into the patient's living tissues. And we've now been at this for about 17 years, and we have almost 500 patients in study across multiple clinical trials that demonstrate the impact of our human acellular vessel to regenerate and to remodel into the patient's own vascular after implant. And we're looking at multiple different indications to treat with this human acellular vessel, from arterial venous access for dialysis patients to peripheral arterial disease and patients who need vascular repair, or reconstruction after vascular trauma. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We can use our bioengineering platform to work on projects to engineer complex tissues and maybe even one day organs. So, this really is going to change how we think about medical care and medical therapies for patients in the future.

We often say we're turning sci-fi into sci-fact. Because it is very much science fiction and it seems to be science fiction, but we're actually out there doing it and proving it.

Tell us a little bit about your “how” and “why” you're in this business.

Well, my why has always been patients. I have always been focused on wanting to improve patient lives or help patients in need, in some type of way. Throughout my academic career, I was early on focused on going to medical school and training to be a physician and really thought that was the best way for me to impact patients’ lives.

I had the opportunity in undergrad, to work with two awesome female professors who encouraged me to get into research. And so, I had the opportunity as a junior and senior in undergrad to do some life sciences research, more on the molecular biology side. But nonetheless, hands-on benchtop research and I was hooked on the possibility of translating benchtop research into bedside technologies.

And from there on, I decided to go to graduate school and got my Ph.D. in molecular biology and gene therapy. Then connected with Laura Nicholson, our founder at Humacyte, when I started as a postdoc at Duke. For me, it's been great from the mid-nineties having access to super smart, intelligent female professors and having access to those STEM opportunities.

I think for me, that's really helped shape who I am and driven me in this direction to be an innovator and impact patients’ lives through creating new technologies and new therapies.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Humacyte is approaching inclusion and diversity and how it's different from how others in the industry might be approaching it?

We've always thought about diversity and inclusion at Humacyte, even before it was more popularized as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. And I can't speak for the industry at large, but at Humacyte, we're proud to be female-founded, female-led. Kathleen Sebelius chairs our board and so it's great to see that highlight of women in the scientific and medical research space.

And we've continued with the push to be diverse and inclusive. We continue to hire top-notch talent across all different types of diversities. And it's really a focus of ours. We want to promote that we include everyone. Because that's what we're all here for, right? Because we all better one another when we work together.

And it's been a continuous process. We've worked long and hard to figure out ways to interact with our teams and talk about diversity and inclusion, and how do we promote that within our organization and outside of the four walls of our organization into the communities that surround us as well.

I think when we listened to our teams and appreciated their different diverse perspectives, we were able to come up with an action plan that helped us put action to our words. Because it's one thing to always talk about doing something or saying you're going to work on this effort or mention it would be good to try to do these things, but it's different to really take action and to take the collective thought of all of our teams and say, ‘Okay, what means the most to us here in our Humacyte family? What means the most to our teams at home and then how do we also share that with the communities that surround us?’ So, we've spent quite a bit of time thinking about those diversity and inclusion efforts across all the different groups.

We put in place the DEI champion at Humacyte back in early 2021, which for a small company was not often done. But we wanted to show not only our employees and our team members but also the external world, that this meant a lot to us and it was important. That DEI champion helps us to integrate those efforts into our organization through running a book club, through bringing in key speakers who can talk about different issues or different ways to coach and mentor our employees. We've also done quite a bit of work volunteering and donating into our communities to really help set an example for who we want the world to be and how we want it to look like what we're trying to do.

Being an academic and then transitioning into industry as a female, what advice do you have to give to other female scientists or entrepreneurs about starting their own business or just even being a female in the industry?

I think it's most important to believe in yourself and be confident. I think for many people sometimes doubt creeps in. But you have to be confident, and you have to believe in your ideas, especially as you're thinking about starting a company, pushing a company to the next level, or working on a research experiment in an academic lab, or whatever it might be. You as the individual have to be confident and believe in whatever it is you're doing.

But I would say with that, is the ability to acknowledge when you might have to be adaptable and pivot. The road you lay out may not be the road that actually happens. And so you have to be one step ahead of yourself to say, well, I'm really confident.

For my example, we knew this technology was going to work, it was going to be regenerative. But how did we make the rest of the world see that and how did we relate that to individuals trying to understand what we were doing? How do we demonstrate to FDA that this product was safe and that we should move into clinical trials? We've had to pivot along the way, but we never took no or you can't do that as the final answer. We always went back and said, okay, if this isn't how we thought it would play out, how do we make this happen so we can move our product or our technology one step further down the path?

I think for many women, and for everyone out there, who's trying something new or innovative first of its kind, you have to be confident and just focused on hitting your end game and know that the road might not be a straight road to that end game.

What’s next for Humacyte and for you?

We do have a lot going on at Humacyte. Since we've gone public as of last year, we've had the ability to really showcase at a different level all of the great things we've been doing for the last 17 years. We have three clinical trial programs that are well underway, and we're anxiously waiting for those to finish up. We're waiting to submit our BLA to FDA for our first product indication to get approval and get that on the market.

But for me as a scientist, what I find most exciting and what drives me every day to continue pushing down this marathon, is all the research and discovery and the pipeline we're now able to do and focus on. Taking that acellular engineering technology to the next level and developing complex tissue systems and possibly even organs one day.

It's just exciting to know that we'll be able to hopefully bring to market and to patients, a new opportunity for a whole host of other opportunities, whether it's a biovascular pancreas to help type one diabetes patients or an organ one day for patients who are waiting for kidneys or lungs or livers. For me as a scientist, I love to know that we're touching and we're impacting patients more and more broadly every year, with every turn of our organization.

So, for me, I really go back into the how do I continue to think about that benchtop to bedside potential and how do we take this technology to the next level to create new opportunities and new product therapies for patients.

Do you have a unique perspective on your diversity and inclusion in the life sciences? Contact the editor today to learn more.

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