While attending Life Science Baltics 2023, Diana Spencer spoke to Monika Paule, CEO and Co-founder of Caszyme, about creating a company based on CRISPR gene editing and some of the challenges of operating in this dynamic area of research.
DS: What was the motivation for launching Caszyme and what challenges did you face creating a viable business?
MP: Lithuania is a hub of gene editing, as we not only have the Life Sciences Centre at Vilnius University, but also the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Caszyme was founded in 2017 by the pioneers of CRISPR gene editing technologies. Our main founder is Professor Virginijus Šikšnys, who is a very well-known researcher in the CRISPR field. Together with our current Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Giedrius Gasiūnas, he was one of the founders of the CRISPR Cas9 technology more than 10 years ago.
I had worked with Professor Šikšnys and Dr Gasiūnas for many years and we realised there was a lot of knowledge and capability in CRISPR technology that could be applied commercially. We never went through rounds of investments like most companies. We have strategic partners from the start, one of which is New England Biolabs, who trusted in our capabilities. Fortunately, we were able to generate income from the very first year and continuously invest all the profits back into the company to move it forward.
DS: CRISPR has a huge range of applications, but has been most influential in therapeutics so far. Can you tell us about some of the projects you are involved in?
MP: We currently develop CRISPR based molecular tools for clients creating new therapies for the treatment of various diseases, but we also work in diagnostics and agriculture. However, most of our collaborations in the therapeutic space are quite confidential due to the competitive nature of the industry.
As an example, we work with Spanish company Integra Therapeutics, combining their technology with ours to develop a therapeutic treatment approach. To fund this project we were awarded a €1 million grant from Eurostars, a funding programme of the European Commission.
DS: CRISPR is constantly evolving. How has the company had to change over the years?
MP: Our growth has not been exponential – from two of us, we are now at around 25 staff members. It is fairly easy to recruit the staff we need to grow as a lot of people from other industries want to come to biotech, mainly because it’s trendy, interesting, and makes an impact.
When we founded Caszyme our initial collaborations were focused on CRISPR Cas9, but now we work with different Cas12 families.
The market is changing, so we are constantly adapting, looking to the future to see what the market needs. We couldn’t possibly imagine how this industry would develop when we first started out, because it has expanded and moved forward much more than anybody thought it would.
DS: Where do you see Caszyme developing in the future?
MP: I think industry and academia just now are starting to discover the potential that this technology has, as treatments for various diseases that use CRISPR are in clinical trials, but there are so many more applications that could be developed. Treating disease is great, but feeding people could be even greater. This technology will impact the whole world in a positive way and we all could do more to contribute.
We see Caszyme as a knowledge hub in the gene editing space. Our plans are to expand our services and launch new products in the future.
DS: How do you approach some of the ethical concerns related to gene editing?
MP: The way I see it, it is the work of researchers to invent technologies, and it’s the role of governments to regulate how they are used. As a company we obviously must be very thoughtful who we work with, and what solutions our partners are developing. As the use of this technology becomes more widespread, it is important that international governments and associations coordinate to establish regulations that apply all around the world.
DS: You founded the networking group Women in Biotech. Would you say it’s a good time to be a woman in biotech at the moment?
MP: Five years ago, just four or five of Lithuania’s biotech businesses had women in c-level roles, and now quite a large number do, so the change is significant. In Lithuania we have social support systems in place to enable a good work-life balance, so people do not have to choose between their careers and their family or personal life. This is especially important as the majority of company founders are in their 30s and 40s. I think we should promote the work-life balance that we have, not only in Lithuania, but in Europe as well as favourable for new company development.
Monika Paule is CEO and Co-founder of Caszyme, a biotech company in Vilnius, Lithuania, which aims to deliver novel gene editing solutions.