Three decades of BTP scientists intersect at Madison stem cell startup

Stem Pharm logo
Courtesy of Stem Pharm

Over the decades, as University of Wisconsin­–Madison Biotechnology Training Program (BTP) trainees finish their doctoral degrees and enter the field of biotechnology, a sort of family tree begins to emerge. BTP alumni look for others with similar skill sets and turn to the current pool of BTP trainees and young alumni.

At the startup company Stem Pharm, Connie Lebakken, a BTP alumnae who graduated in the late ‘90s and is the company’s president and chief operating officer, took on a trainee Andrew Khalil as an intern in 2016. The two made for a dynamic and hardworking team. More recently, BTP trainee Angie Xie also interned at the company, further strengthening the relationship.

“My experience with Connie at Stem Pharm was just spectacular,” says Khalil, who started his Ph.D in biomedical engineering in 2012 and graduated in 2017. “She’s a great experimentalist and scientist and one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people I’ve had as a mentor. I advanced significantly as a scientist during my interactions with her.”

Lebakken had similar things to say about Khalil and added that she knew what to expect from a BTP intern because she has been through the program herself.

Group of BTP trainees and alumni
At BTP trainee Angie Xie’s (left) dissertation defense, a BTP reunion occurred. Xie (left) and fellow BTP trainee now alum Andrew Khalil (right) both interned as trainees at Stem Pharm with Connie Lebakken, who herself was a BTP trainee in the late ’90s. Xie and Khalil were both advised by biomedical engineering professor Bill Murphy, who helped start Stem Pharm with Lebakken.

“Andrew was great, and he wanted to learn about what we were doing,” she recalls. “Our skill sets complemented each other’s incredibly well so we actually got a lot done when he was with us because we could bounce ideas off of each other.”

While at UW–Madison in BTP, Lebakken was a student in the Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology and worked under Alan Rapraeger. Her internship at Promega through BTP opened her eyes to the possibilities in the biotechnology industry and she held various roles in companies before co-founding Stem Pharm.

She started Stem Pharm with Bill Murphy, a professor of biomedical engineering at UW–Madison, who is also Khalil and Xie’s advisor. Murphy is actually an alum of the University of Michigan’s Cellular Biotechnology Training Program, BTP’s counterpart there, helping the BTP connection with Stem Pharm span three decades.

Their company is involved in developing biomaterials for stem cell discovery and therapy applications. Intellectual property for this technology has been developed in part by BTP trainees, and is being patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Stem Pharm is interested in getting materials out of the lab to commercialize them to help “scientists develop better therapeutics and better society,” Lebakken explains.

Murphy recently gave the seminar in BTP’s Foundations of Biotechnology class, a course that brings in scientists and entrepreneurs from across campus, the city of Madison, and beyond to introduce students to the highlights of the industry.

“Startups are necessary because a product going from the lab directly to a big company is rare for many reasons,” he told the class. “There are many issues that affect translatability, even things like shelf life testing, that you need to be aware of.”

Khalil says BTP has given him insight into these different issues and how to be successful in the field of biotechnology.

“BTP is all about getting you familiar with the biotechnology industry and its complexities,” he says. “For example, I took an entrepreneurship course from the Business School that I probably wouldn’t have taken without the Foundations course. It’s all about getting you exposed to the right catalysts to know where to go next.”

As the chief operating officer for her and Murphy’s company, Lebakken says BTP helped her gain those important skills it takes to get the company started.

“Communicating with others, building trust, even knowing how to properly document your work are all extremely important,” she says. “Later on, those skills and the internship are useful because as a hiring manager I would see that a potential hire had done an internship and be able to ask questions and gain insight into how they approach their work.”