A Scientific and Entrepreneurial Pioneer
To some, these words suggest resignation; to others, longing. To life science entrepreneur John ‘Jay’ Schwartz, Ph.D. ’92, they signal opportunity: the opportunity to address unmet health care needs by moving medical technologies from bench to bedside. “Two words I love to hear from clinicians are ‘if only,’” he says. “The idea that there is a solution for an unmet medical need that could increase patient safety, reduce costs, improve care and lead to better patient outcomes is what drives me.”
Dr. Jay Schwartz is chief executive officer and chairman of AcuityBio, Inc., a late-stage, pre-clinical oncology company that is commercializing a combination drug-device, which will prevent lung cancer recurrence. It is one of several companies that he has founded or advanced during the past 20 years, using his talent for connecting the dots between basic science, translational research and clinical progress.
As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, he had no clear idea where this passion would lead. The “logical endpoint” of majoring in microbiology, Dr. Schwartz says, “was to ask basic questions about how biology works.” Earning his doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology seemed like the next logical step. “I was insatiably curious about how things worked,” he recalls.
Ira Schwartz, PhD. (no relation), professor and chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who was serving as acting chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology when Jay was a student , remembers Dr. Jay Schwartz’s inquisitive nature and pioneering spirit. “He was always interested in working at the edges of new areas,” he says of his former student. He recalls how eager Dr. Jay Schwartz was to research and develop what would become the first accurate predictive human clinical test for Lyme disease. “No one else was doing this kind of work,” Dr. Ira Schwartz notes. “Jay established the protocol that has been the focus of my research for 25 years, for which I am grateful.”
The gratitude goes both ways: “It was Ira Schwartz’s open-mindedness, his willingness to have collegial conversations and ask me the right questions about how to solve a really challenging problem with a brand new technology, polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Ira mentored me in developing my critical thinking skills and guided the experiments we performed in order to get to the right solutions, despite the many challenges we faced,” Dr. Jay Schwartz says. “He is my model for mentorship.”
Unlike serologic Lyme tests that measure antibodies six to 24 weeks after infection, Dr. Jay Schwartz’s test used nucleic acids to immediately identify active infection––with no false positives. “Jay’s work was among the first to demonstrate the value of PCR for detecting the infectious agent that causes Lyme disease,” explains Dr. Ira Schwartz, who lauds his mentee’s early hallmark research paper as a major achievement. “It’s been cited in the literature more than 200 times. It’s a classic.”
The research led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Medical School. There, he spent the next decade performing cutting-edge investigations and learning how to bring new technologies to market by securing grants, collaborating with strategic partners, negotiating regulatory processes, and founding and selling life science start-up companies.“That’s where I found my calling,” he says. “Academic hypothesis-driven development of new knowledge is vitally important. However, to reach from the bench to the bedside requires a clear-eyed view of business, science, medicine, the regulatory environment and a bit of savvy on how to navigate these arenas.”
Dr. Jay Schwartz’s approach to new technology begins with essential questions like, “Will the innovation solve an important problem and market need?” “How will it be used in clinical practice?” and, “If successful, will it be valued sufficiently by the market for adoption and reimbursement?” He calls such questions “critical” in evaluating the value of developing any new technologies. He has used his scientific and business experience to identify, refine and develop a technology pioneered at Harvard and Boston universities: a drug-eluting implant designed to deliver a drug regionally without toxic side effects and prevent lung cancer recurrence. As the product nears the clinical trial stage, he is already working with international strategic partners to co-develop its applications to treat other cancers. He has also co-developed a new type of biliary catheter designed to greatly enhance the “critical view for safety” in gall bladder removal surgery. “Every time I speak with him, he’s working on something new,” Dr. Ira Schwartz says.
In addition to exploring his own entrepreneurial prospects, Dr. Jay Schwartz supports those of others. He volunteers for the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, a pro-bono organization that matches emerging and experienced entrepreneurs with skilled volunteer mentors. “Entrepreneurship is an addiction and it’s not curable,” he says wryly. More seriously, he adds,“My greatest satisfaction is when I see a project that I have been involved in benefit the health and lives of patients.”