Geoffrey von Maltzahn, TJ ’99, is a scientist, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who, at 34, is already well on his way to addressing important challenges in medicine, nutrition, agriculture, and sustainability.
Dr. von Maltzahn is currently working on his ninth startup company, the latest in a sequence of ventures that are pioneering new solutions in therapeutics, medical devices, nutrition, and agricultural products. While working on his PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Medical Physics at MIT, he founded three companies and mentored 15 undergraduates. Named as an inventor on over 100 patents and applications in the health care and sustainability fields, Dr. von Maltzahn, who obtained a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from MIT and a Master’s in Bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, has received over 20 awards and honors for his inventions, including the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, awarded to MIT’s most innovative student (for designing a method to selectively target cancer cells).
After co-founding Sienna Labs, which develops medical pigments that enhance the efficacy of laser medical procedures, and Nanopartz, which develops nanoparticle-based products for use in research and manufacturing, he brought his wealth of expertise to Flagship Ventures, a unique Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm, in 2009. The firm operates through two complimentary units: VentureLabs, which supports the invention of new technologies and launches transformative companies, and Venture Capital, which finances and develops innovative companies, including those launched by its sister unit. Companies co-founded by Dr. von Maltzahn with his collaborators at Flagship Ventures include Seres Health, Pronutria Biosciences, and Symbiota.
Seres Health is a clinical-stage therapeutics company focused on discovering and developing drugs to treat diseases of the microbiome. As studies continue to confirm that a healthy microbiome is essential not only to the proper functioning of our digestive system but of our immune system as well, research on the human microbiome is exploding. Seres Health is working to discover and develop novel drugs to treat diseases by augmenting the “good” bacteria naturally present in the healthy human gut. The company has therapeutic programs in multiple infectious, metabolic, and inflammatory diseases.
Dr. von Maltzahn led the initial discovery of the company’s lead Ecobiotic® to treat Clostridium difficile (C.diff) infection, a serious infection that occurs when antibiotics have depleted the gut’s healthy bacteria. The novel therapeutic has shown remarkable initial clinical trial results and is the first of a potential new category of Microbiome Therapeutics™ that restores the functions of a healthy microbiome. The company announced a research alliance with Mayo Clinic last year and has received over $100 million in funding to date. In July 2014, technology magazine BetaBoston named it one of “Four Boston Biotech Firms Worth Watching.”
Pronutria Biosciences is pioneering an innovative new therapeutic category based on edible proteins that release specific combinations of amino acids during digestion. Using proprietary tools, the company is identifying disease-specific product candidates from a library containing over one billion proteins found in the human diet. The company is then developing them as “pharmaconutrients” (a successful example is GlaxoSmithKline’s Lovaza, a drug made from purified Omega 3 fatty acids) to treat specific diseases.
In December, Pronutria Biosciences was issued patents covering novel edible protein therapeutics, including the company’s two lead product candidates the discovery of which was led by Dr. von Maltzahn, and methods of treatment and prevention of muscle loss in a wide class of conditions including anorexia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and congestive heart failure.
Dr. von Maltzahn currently serves as Chief Technology Officer of Symbiota, a VentureLabs company based on the recognition that agricultural plants also depend on unique microbiomes (the microorganisms that live in and around the plant) for their health and yield. By tapping into the microbes living inside of plant tissues, Symbiota has generated a large pipeline of candidates to improve yield under a broad array of stress conditions — drought, excessive heat, varying salt and nitrogen levels, fungal and insect infestations, among others — in globally important crops, including corn, soy, wheat, cotton and vegetables. According to the press release that accompanied its first public announcement in November 2014, “this new way of naturally, non-genetically boosting crop performance is beneficial to plants and the environment, cost-effective, and compatible with all farming practices.”
Dr. von Maltzahn credits TJ’s unique mixture of incredible teachers, challenging classes, high expectations, and learn-by-doing experiences with propelling him toward his amazing career. He encourages students to get involved in hands-on engineering and science experiences, particularly ones that allow them to ask questions and to find out how surprisingly easy it is to understand and participate in cutting-edge science. “This is such an exciting time to be in science and technology, and the best way to get started is to dive right in. TJ does a great job of opening the doors to make this possible.”