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Sitting Down with Martina Roos of Sardona Therapeutics

By Kayti Mangels | August 15, 2023
Martina Roos, CEO - Sardona Therapeutics

Sitting Down with Martina Roos of Sardona Therapeutics

“Have a clear vision, tell a good story, build evidence on rigorous data to support your story and therapies for patients, and grow a well-connected network of mentors or advisors,” Martina emphasizes. “Then be willing to go all in.”

Founder and CEO Martina Roos has had quite the success story in launching her biotechnology company, Sardona Therapeutics. Sardona was spun out of UCLA in late 2020 with the mission to transform cancer-treatment technology using small molecules to target RNA-binding proteins. But what made Sardona evolve into the startup that it is today? And how did Martina transition from academia to entrepreneurship? As a former Equalize finalist, Martina gladly agreed to sit down with Equalize co-founder Kirsten Leute to discuss her entrepreneurial journey. This interview has been edited for clarity and length by Abby Akirav.

Kirsten: I’d love to hear what Sardona’s been up to since the last time you caught up with Equalize in September 2021.

Martina: It’s been an amazingly productive and exciting year. We’ve validated our lead program, generated in vivo proof of concept data, and grown a robust pipeline of novel precision medicine oncology therapeutics for genetically defined cancers. We’ve raised $15 million in funding and are currently a team of 10 employees. It’s impressive what our nimble, passionate team has been achieving, and we are very excited to bring a new, potentially transformative class of therapies to patients.

Congratulations to you on funding and growing the team, that’s really exciting to hear about! What are you particularly excited about in the coming months for Sardona’s development?

There are a couple aspects I am really looking forward to:

  • On the drug development side, we are excited to advance the lead program to the clinic. The program is a novel mechanism to target a specific RNA-binding protein in the spliceosome to inhibit deregulated RNA-processing in the PI3K/mTOR pathway. Thus, we have a couple of important milestones coming up which will allow us to select a molecule that will go into IND-enabling studies. We anticipate starting Phase 1 clinical trials later in 2024, so these milestones will be key for the company.
  • We are also excited about leveraging the insights we gained from our lead program and building on our platform. We have a very interesting program in place targeting NRF2, an undruggable oncogenic signaling pathway, to create a new precision oncology treatment with transformative potential for patients.
  • From a team perspective, I am personally looking forward to expanding our leadership and getting the opportunity to work with/learn from the very best. 

That is fantastic, on both the scientific/clinical development and team side. I’d love to talk more about you, can you recount your experience launching and spinning out your startup? What were some of the best decisions you made during the process of creating your startup? What do you think you could have done differently?

Overall, it’s been an extremely rewarding experience. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to start a company from scratch. From out-licensing an asset from academia to building and growing an interdisciplinary team of talented RNA scientists, highly experienced drug development experts, and business and finance experts to delivering for our investors, Sardona’s mission has been supported since day one.

I think it was key to find and be supported by mentors, advisors and board members that have “been there, done it” and have the same values of a good company culture. I am thrilled that Sardona can count on such a network of people and believe it has been instrumental to the progress we have been making over the past year.

One thing that I would do differently is not compromise on people. Drug discovery and development is only as successful as the people who live it and do it every day. It’s so important that people can be their authentic selves to work well together in a team. I think it’s fundamental to assemble and inspire a team that has and lives the same values every day.

What were the top obstacles you faced when building Sardona? How were you able to overcome them?

Gaining trust from investors, pharma partners, and future team colleagues for something new and innovative takes time. It is a daily challenge balancing all the many important aspects of the startup CEO’s job — creating space for scientific innovation, leading operations, building a team and fundraising. Every startup founder has had the same experience; it just takes relentless consistency, persistence, resilience and, sometimes, almost “antifragility” to work through all the “No’s” until you get a “Yes.”

Leaving academia is a major move for an assistant professor. Did you have any initial reservations about leaving academia?

I am a very curious person and incredibly passionate about leveraging the potential of targeting RNA-binding proteins to bring a new class of precision oncology therapeutics to patients. I think there is nothing more rewarding than making a difference in a cancer patient’s life. The opportunity to work towards finding therapeutic solutions and to be able to work alongside an equally passionate team of stellar scientists, drug discovery and development experts, operational people, board members, mentors and advisors is simply amazing. I cannot imagine a better job.

Thus far, what was the best piece of advice or constructive criticism you received as a CEO?

I would say alignment is key at every level among the team and board. Our board’s chairman always reminds me to make sure that the board directors are up to date and that there are no surprises. Similarly, an aligned team that is pushing in the same direction can make a big impact in driving projects forward. Alignment needs work and a lot of communication, which is something that I am working on every day.

Regarding initial funding, how were you able to raise and secure initial investment? For example, were there specific events or groups that provided a pathway for you to start raising capital?

There were a couple of accelerator programs that helped me gain access to a world-class network of company-builders, entrepreneurs, and biotech professionals. The inaugural Equalize 2020 Program was one such stepping stone, where I met a couple of terrific mentors that dedicated significant time to help build Sardona. They provided critical mentorship on a diverse range of topics and have since been amazing cheerleaders.

People often ask about funding and obstacles in starting such a new venture, but is there anything that you do not get asked about that you find has been particularly surprising?

I rarely get asked about relationship building. I think that’s one piece of advice which is key; if one is a first-time founder with less of a track record in biotech, they must continuously invest in building relationships. This can be done with investors, pharma partners, or current and future team colleagues by consistently providing evidence of performance and reliability. Growing and nurturing high-quality relationships with the right people takes time and is invaluable.

It’s now been a few years since you made this move from being an assistant professor to the founder and CEO of a company. Were there particular aspects of the Equalize program that helped you decide to make this leap?

Equalize provided me with access to a network of experienced biotech entrepreneurs and investors that I could start building on. It provided a safe, informal environment and an outstanding opportunity to get accustomed to the language and processes of the startup world, pitch/sell amazing ideas, and plan out the product’s path to market.

Do you have any pieces of advice for future Equalize pitchers in their pursuits of entrepreneurship?

Your full potential is far beyond what you believe it to be. So don't limit yourself. 

View the full interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbG2bL2md1g

 

Summary written by Abby Akirav.