How did she do it? A Q&A with Miriam Huntley, Ph.D., CTO and co-founder of Day Zero Diagnostics

Laura Davis, managing director of Golden Seeds, member of the board of directors of Day Zero Diagnostics

February 22, 2019

Miriam Huntley, Ph.D., CTO and co-founder of Day Zero Diagnostics

She followed a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT with a doctorate in applied math from Harvard. Yet, even as she was still studying methods for analyzing biological systems and large genomic datasets, she was wondering what her next challenge would be. She wanted to be involved in something technical that would have real-world impact — and she created that opportunity.

Golden Seeds’ Laura Davis discussed with Miriam how the company she co-founded will shape the treatment of infectious diseases with a technology that promises to speed-up diagnosis, reduce patient suffering and prevent deaths.

LD: Tell us about the origins of your company.

MH: In 2015, I was finishing up my doctorate and wondering about my next step. I wanted something I could sink my teeth into — technical work that would impact society. I had like-minded friends and we began discussing possibilities related to healthcare. In this group was Doug Kwon, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, who also oversees a laboratory at the . Doug would become a co-founder of  (DZD).

Antibiotic resistance is creating a public health crisis and Doug brought up how it takes too long to diagnose bacterial infections. Hospitals use traditional culture technology that requires growing bacteria to identify the species and resistance profile of an infection. The problem is, it takes two to five days to get results and a patient can suffer while awaiting treatment. With a severe infection, like sepsis, the chance of death increases eight percent every hour a patient doesn’t get the right drugs. Doug wondered if applying genomics might speed up the process.

A small group of us decided to create . The trick was using genome sequencing, data analysis and machine learning — which was a good use of my skills. By the time I finished my doctorate in May 2016, we had officially started DZD, raised funding, and I jumped into it full-time.

LD: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?

MH: Other groups that are trying to close that time gap take two different approaches. One is to automate and miniaturize the current culture-based technology, but this still involves growing bacteria. So, while the results are good, the time saved is incremental. The other approach involves molecular probes and can be fast, sometimes returning data in under an hour, but its focus is narrow. A physician has to have a strong hypothesis of what the infectious agent is from the outset because the process can only detect a handful of bacterial species.

We don’t want that trade off: comprehensive but slow, or narrow but fast. We want speed and breadth. So, we developed a diagnostic that identifies the species and antibiotic resistance profile of a bacterial infection within hours. Crucially, our approach does not wait for the bacteria to grow, but instead reads the whole genome sequence of the pathogen. We then use a machine learning algorithm, trained on a proprietary genomic database, in order to rapidly determine resistance.

LD: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?

MH: There have been lots of technical challenges. For instance, even if a patient is very sick, there are only minuscule amounts of bacterial DNA in a blood sample. If you just tried to sequence the patient’s blood directly, you would almost entirely be sequencing the human DNA because the bacterial representation is so small. To overcome this, we created a technology that gets rid of the human DNA, enabling us to access and focus on the bacterial genomes.

This is just the start of a list of hurdles. What I love about our team is that when we hit a wall, we all get into a room, mentally deconstruct and rebuild the solution with the issue in mind, identifying flaws and making improvements.

This is enabling us to develop an in vitro diagnostic that will fit into a hospital microbiology lab. It will perform everything from extracting the DNA to sequencing to applying algorithms. In the meantime, we’ve also built a lab service for diagnosis that allows us to work with customers and gain valuable data and experience.

LD: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?

MH: We’re just coming off a successful series A round of funding. Golden Seeds — who led our initial seed round — followed on with additional investment. For the next two years, we’ll be further developing prototypes of our diagnostic. We expect to officially launch the device in 2022. In the meantime, we’re introducing DZD Lab Services, a suite of high value infectious disease applications using next generation sequencing. We are big believers in customer feedback driven development and Lab Services allows us to push our R&D by working directly with customers in high impact situations.

LD: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?

MH: When creating a team, hire people who aren’t just like you. That’s a hard thing to do — it’s easy for me to gauge the talent of folks that have a similar background to me, but it’s more difficult figuring out how capable a person is if their skill set is in a different area — but it’s also absolutely crucial. Other advice: build a diverse team, engender a culture of respect, and make people feel that their feedback is heard. The clichés are true; be kind, transparent and communicate well.

LD: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?

MH: We were working out of the Harvard Innovation Labs where you had office hours, Laura. We signed up to meet and I was thrilled to find you have a Ph.D. in cell biology. You were able to speak technically with us and offer in-depth strategic guidance. Golden Seeds ended up leading our Seed Round, and has played a significant role in our company since then.

You became a member of our board, as did Golden Seeds’ Deb Kemper, as an observer, who was a major help in financial areas. Since then Golden Seeds has advanced our startup and helped us grow, providing business and scientific insight, and drawing on the group’s large network to connect us with other founders in related fields along the way, particularly women leaders. And of course, Golden Seeds joined our Series A and continues to provide guidance and connect us to new opportunities.

It’s been a great partnership. If a startup is looking for investors and direction — particularly if they have strong female representation — they should talk to Golden Seeds.

Interested in learning more about how women entrepreneurs are achieving success? .