Today, the company has more than 30 employees—most of whom are American—and is a good example of how “immigration is a win-win for everyone.”
Agustin Lopez Marquez is the Venezuelan co-founder of SQZ Biotech, a company that re-engineers cells to help them fight diseases. In 2014, Scientific American named SQZ Biotech’s technology one of ten “world changing ideas.” Today, the company has more than 30 employees—most of whom are American—and is, Lopez Marquez says, a good example of how “immigration is a win-win for everyone.”
“In Venezuela, chemical engineers are often constrained to the energy industry,” says Agustin Lopez Marquez. “It was only when I came to the United States that I realized chemical engineers could have a big impact in the medical field too.” This realization led Lopez Marquez, who studied chemical engineering at MIT, to co-found SQZ Biotech, a company that re-engineers cells to help fight cancer and other diseases. SQZ Biotech’s technology is called CellSqueeze—a process that literally squeezes cells open in order to insert molecules that will strengthen those cells. One of the most promising applications of this technology is immunotherapy, a medical treatment that takes a patient’s disease-fighting cells out of the body, strengthens them, and then reinserts them back into the body.
CellSqueeze was invented by Armon Sharei at MIT, in the labs of Professors Bob Langer and Klavs Jensen. Lopez Marquez met Sharei, whose parents are from Iran, while they were both pursuing graduate degrees in chemical engineering at MIT. In 2013, the two friends became business partners.
SQZ’s innovative approach to disease treatment has brought the company many accolades, including being named one of Scientific America’s ten “world changing ideas of 2014.” Lopez Marquez says that SQZ Biotech is one of many examples of the positive contributions immigrants have had in the United States. “My co-founders and I have built a successful company that is on the cutting edge of medical innovation in America,” he says. SQZ Biotech has also created over 20 new jobs, roughly two-thirds of which have been filled by Americans. “So, in the grand scheme of things,” Lopez Marquez says, “immigration is a win-win for everyone.”
Lopez Marquez says that his international background was a key factor in his success with SQZ Biotech. “When you’re raised in a developing country like Venezuela, you learn to become resourceful because many things people take for granted in developed countries are not a given there,” he says. “It creates an entrepreneurial mindset where you think: I’ll figure this out, regardless of the challenges.”
Although Lopez Marquez left SQZ Biotech in 2015 to work at Shire, a global pharmaceutical company, he remains in close contact with his old team. “They’re currently working with pharmaceutical companies to start the first phase of a clinical trial,” Lopez Marquez says, “and the ultimate vision is to develop treatments that dramatically improve the lives of patients suffering from some of the worst diseases in the world.”
SQZ joined the Venture Development Center in January 2015. The company began working with the VDC in October 2014 when it was seeking grants from the SBIR Program. The VDC committed laboratory and office space. SQZ subsequently was awarded $624,310 in three grants from NSF and NIH. In 2016, it received a $750,000 follow-on grant from the NSF.
According to Agustin:
“One of our first employees – Jon Gilbert – searched for all possible options for lab space for startups in the Boston area… and he came across VDC, and he could not believe how good it sounded on paper. VDC did not only have top notch lab and office spaces, but it was also affordable and it was flexible enough to cover our immediate and medium term needs. Of course, VDC had a very competitive application process for new tenants… but we were fortunate enough to be among the chosen ones. From the beginning, The staff at VDC have shown an incredible support to SQZ Biotech and we are very thankful for it.”
Today, after 18 months at the VDC, SQZ has landed a Series A investment from Polaris, closed a $500M cancer deal with Roche, and grew from 6 to 30 persons.