Platelet BioGenesis co-founder Jonathan Thon (left) developed a way to produce human platelets in a lab using a microfluidic-based bioreactor.
I considered starting Platelet BioGenesis in Canada, but knew Boston provided many more opportunities. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system made this incredibly difficult.
Dr. Jonathan Thon is the co-founder of Platelet BioGenesis, a company that is developing a radical new technology to make human platelets on demand. The Canadian native had to wait two years for his green card application to be approved without any explanation as to why the process was taking so long. While he waited, he had to work for his own company as a consultant, a situation he describes as frustrating and challenging.
Platelets, the smallest of our blood cells, are critical to our survival. Key to wound healing, they stop us from bleeding out when we get a cut and are used in medical procedures ranging from surgery to cancer treatment. “Platelets are the Band-Aids of the bloodstream,” explains Dr. Jonathan Thon, “yet, the current system for obtaining platelets through human donors is outdated and risky.” Thon’s company, Platelet BioGenesis, is working on a radical solution to this problem: technology that will allow human platelets to be produced on demand.
Thon was born in Argentina and raised in Canada. He first came up with the platelet idea while working on his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of British Columbia. “At an early stage in my research, it became obvious that we had to move away from the existing donor-based system by finding a way to produce platelets on demand,” Thon says. “The current system is limited by sterility concerns, storage constraints, and, perhaps most notably, a dearth of volunteer donors.”
After completing his PhD, Thon joined Dr. Joseph Italiano at Harvard Medical School for a research fellowship. The pair developed a bioreactor that triggers platelet production by mimicking the physiological characteristics of bone marrow. Thon and Italiano decided to bring the technology to market, and “founding our own company was the best vehicle to do so,” Thon says.
He considered starting Platelet BioGenesis in Canada, but he knew Boston provided many more opportunities. “The city is perhaps the single greatest hub for biotech investment in the world,” Thon says. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system made this incredibly difficult. Thon had to wait two years for a green card without any explanation as to why the process was taking so long. And because he lacked permanent residency, he was not legally permitted to work for his own company full-time. “It was incredibly frustrating,” Thon laments. “For a company that is still in the beginning stages, it is important that all founders can be fully involved.”
Despite these challenges, Platelet BioGenesis has made tremendous progress and Thon believes that in a few years, the company will achieve the production of human platelets—something once considered impossible. “If we’re successful, we will have a huge impact on human health across the globe,” Thon says, “so it is frustrating there are so many unnecessary obstacles standing in the way.”
Platelet BioGenesis joined the VDC in July 2016. Jonathan had heard about the VDC in 2014 while participating in MassCONNECT (run by MassBio) and asked for the VDC’s support when it applied for funding from the NIH SBIR Program. The VDC committed to provide laboratory space, and access to a mouse facility as well as specialized microscopes in the university’s new Integrated Science Center. The NIH finally announced a $792,000 award to the company in April 2016, followed in May 2016 by a direct to Phase II SBIR $1,500,000 award.