Raj Lehal, CSO of Cellestia Biotech, shares with us his journey and secrets that allow him to transform an idea into a company.
Can you present yourself briefly?
Biopôle’s entrepreneurs share: Journey & tips from Raj Lehal, CSO of Cellestia Biotech
I’m a scientist by training and an entrepreneur by passion. I did my graduate studies at the University of Toronto and ISREC-EPFL on cancer research. My passion is to transform basic understanding of disease mechanisms into tangible assets to address some of the most pressing issues in healthcare.
How and where did you come up with the idea behind Cellestia?
During my academic career in cancer research, I investigated the molecular mechanisms behind cancer initiation, progression and metastasis. One protein that plays a critical role in human cancers and autoimmune diseases is the CSL-NICD transcription complex. However, the ability to target the pathway remained elusive due to structural complexities. During my PhD studies, I established a drug discovery platform to screen and identify small molecules able to inhibit that transcription complex. After several years of hard work and challenges, I was able to tackle this issue and identified molecules that could inhibit this pathway.
How long was it between the idea and the creation of the company?
I always wanted to create a company based on an innovative idea. We came up with the idea of doing a drug discovery project back in 2008. The molecule itself was identified in 2010. However, it took me another four years of work to further refine and validate our approach until we created Cellestia in 2014. In total, from idea to company creation, it took us seven years.
What is your secret weapon to find motivation?
A Chinese proverb that I read somewhere has stuck with me: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’ My motivation to get up every morning and get to work is to make a difference for patients and innovate life-changing medicines for them. There’s no delaying in that. And according to the above proverb, it’s now or never.
Why did you choose Biopôle for your company?
When we were looking for a location to establish our R&D labs, Biopôle was an obvious choice. It offers a vibrant and growing life sciences ecosystem. Biopôle is embedded in one of the best life sciences clusters in Europe. Being surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and world-class biomedical research institutes, such as Ludwig Cancer Research, UNIL, CHUV, ISREC, EPFL and the Swiss Cancer Centre, nurtures synergies and fruitful collaboration.
What would be the three to five pieces of advice you would give to a young entrepreneur today?
- Surround yourself with people with positive attitudes and avoid naysayers.
- Dare to dream big and work hard to achieve that dream. If you can’t dream, you can’t achieve much.
- Don’t be afraid of failure. Regardless of the outcome of your venture, you’ll grow at a personal and professional level. No job out there can offer you the training you get as an entrepreneur. Your experience as an entrepreneur is your biggest asset.
- Stay laser focused on your core objective, yet adaptable based on market needs.
Raj is a scientist by training and an entrepreneur by passion. He brings two decades of experience as a cancer researcher and a track-record of turning basic research into clinical assets. During his doctoral studies at Institute for Experimental Cancer Research-EPFL, he established a drug discovery platform to target undruggable Transcription Factors to address diseases such as cancer, auto-immune and inflammatory disorders. Building upon that platform, Raj co-founded Cellestia Biotech. Raj is winner of several national and international awards for excellence in science and entrepreneurship (Canadian Genetic Disease Network scholarship, the American Association for Cancer Research-Scholar in Training award, a University of Toronto fellowship, the Frank Fletcher Memorial scholarship for cancer research, the Al and Hannah Peryl Graduate student scholarship, Innogrant, Swiss National team of venture leaders in 2013 and 2018). He also mentors budding Swiss entrepreneurs in an Innosuisse sponsored program. He is also a co-founder of Viventis Microscopy. Currently Raj Lehal serves as Chief Scientific Officer and member of the Board of Directors at Cellestia Biotech.