The Future Is Now: Jon Hu Of Pepper Bio On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Don’t think about how others want you to act. You don’t have to be that typical entrepreneur who is prim and proper, like a caricature of corporate America. Like-minded people will gravitate towards you when you show up as yourself, leading you to a stronger team.

As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Hu.

As co-founder and CEO of Pepper Bio, Jon’s vision to end untreatable diseases starts with building the world’s first transomics drug discovery solution. The many stops he’s made along his journey have given him a unique perspective on the drug development process and R&D.

At Shire, he gained valuable insights into bridging the gap between unmet patient needs, science (e.g., biology, technology), and business (e.g., finance, strategy). As an R&D analyst, Jon saw promising therapeutic programs shut down in early stages, due to perceived inadequate return on investment, despite potential drug effectiveness.

Having personally experienced the relief of life-changing medicine for chronic debilitating migraines, he knew first-hand how much life improves when effective treatments exists. After watching his grandmother’s neurological condition deteriorate from Alzheimer’s without access to disease-modifying therapies, Jon wanted to pursue cures for untreated diseases by mitigating scientific risk and better managing the pharma development process. He spent the next few years trying to find the right set of technologies to achieve these goals.

After work and on weekends, he spent time speaking with researchers to understand why, despite so much technological progress over the last few decades, there were still so many diseases, that don’t have effective treatments.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey to the world of drug discovery began when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis was devastating for my family, and I felt compelled to take matters into my own hands and create hope for the millions of people and families affected by untreatable diseases.

My search for answers led me to partner with my co-founder Samantha Dale Strasser, whom I had known since college at Northwestern. She was developing innovative technology to shed light on highly complex biology, which could be used to probe diseases and drug effects. Today, Pepper Bio uses proprietary technology to find new targets, select the best treatments, and identify the optimal candidates for treatments to optimize the drug discovery process. Our mission is to end the era of untreatable diseases by gaining a comprehensive understanding in the early stages of drug development.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Earlier in my career, I worked at Shire Pharmaceuticals to prioritize its R&D portfolio. I saw the decision-making process behind either progressing or killing a drug program. Programs that could significantly impact patients’ lives could be considered ‘low priority’ if they had low financial returns, even if they had strong credentials in every other dimension. I’d heard stories like this before, but I never thought I’d be the one making these calls and being an obstacle in other patients’ journey to recovery. To be the person saying, “We recommend killing this project because it’s not going to be profitable,” was something I never imagined I’d have to do.

These experiences fueled my passion for entering the pharmaceutical space and forced me to question how I could change the economics of cutting-edge research.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

We designed Pepper Bio to be the Google Maps of drug discovery. Our technology unlocks a new layer of sophistication to significantly reduce the cost and time required to develop drugs — specifically for neurology, oncology, and inflammatory diseases. Using a computational platform that integrates genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, and phosphoproteomic data, we’re building the world’s first transomics database, which provides researchers with a complete, real-time map of disease mechanisms and interactions between therapies and surrounding cells. Leveraging our technology, other developers can engineer and select drugs with less toxicity, higher efficacy, and higher response rates, ensuring that patients can get rid of their disease symptoms with limited side effects.

Historically researchers focused solely on the “big data.” They’d collect as much data as possible because there was no downside to having more data. Over time, the industry learned that this approach was hindering the development process, and we pivoted toward collecting the right data. AI algorithms are only as effective as the data they are deployed on, which is why the use and integration of phosphoproteomic data into biological analyses is a complex but vital component of treating disease. Pepper Bio’s ability to stack protein phosphorylation information on top of more common data types, such as genomics, allows researchers to find effective therapies more easily. Minimizing time spent creating a drug while increasing its probability of success ensures therapeutic research into “riskier” diseases is less challenging.

Our ability to help researchers pre-vet drug targets and avoid costly mistakes during the trial phase is enabling a future of faster, safer, and more cost-effective drug discovery — bringing the same miraculous speed of Moderna and Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine innovations to neurodegenerative disease, cancer, and inflammatory disease.

How do you think this might change the world?

Pepper Bio has the potential to change the drug discovery industry and provide hope for millions of people and families across the world impacted by currently untreatable diseases.

Today’s drug discovery process is expensive and time-consuming. The combined cost of successful and failed attempts at developing a single successful therapy is upwards of $2.6 billion, and it can take 10+ years to bring a new drug to market. For pharma companies, risky and complex diseases are a bad financial bet, leaving patients who suffer from these ailments without hope.

Any individual drug has a 3% probability of success in drug discovery. These odds are so low because we still don’t have a comprehensive understanding of disease or the effects drugs have on disease and patients. Instead, drug developers conduct targeted analysis with limited data types, which only look at one or two specific pathways for the drug. As a result, developers miss other pathways that could interfere further down the road or miss potential side effects deemed intolerable by the FDA.

Our transomics technology addresses issues starting at the earliest stages of drug development. By bringing a new layer of understanding to drug discovery, we can make causal inferences about disease mechanisms and provide partners with functional insights into biological occurrences in real time.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I think all revolutionary ideas, concepts, and technology that can save the world carry some potential risks. Our technology can be used to map out what can potentially save a patient from pain or long-term decline. The platform can be used for so much good because it finds the best way to help people based on a new approach to transomics, but on the other hand, it could be used for the exact opposite. Hypothetically, a person with ill intentions for the world could utilize our technology to find the most effective way to hurt people. This is something we are always aware of and careful to consider as we do this research. Ultimately, the guiding question we ask ourselves is whether the direction we are heading in is serving the patients and caregivers we want to help.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

My grandma’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was the tipping point for me. At the time, I knew anything I could do would be too late for her because there were no current treatments on the market. But I wanted to work hard to make sure no other families had to go through this feeling of hopelessness in the future.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We need the adoption of our technology through educational institutions and drug research facilities. We plan to do this through new and existing partnerships to continue the expansion of validated targets and get drug candidates into the clinic. Early adopters will be important to test it out and champion the idea to those around them.

Additionally, the drug discovery industry needs a new spark, a sense of wonder. It needs imaginative, adventurous people to take calculated risks and leaps forward by adopting new technologies. More potential to develop curative medicines can’t come from doing the same things year after year, we need people who can think both inside and outside the box.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We’ve presented at various conferences, panel discussions, and award ceremonies and have done media interviews and case presentations at Harvard Business School. We also have various partnerships in the works right now that will play an important role in presenting our mission to the pharma industry and beyond. We’re looking forward to when we can provide more details on the collaborations we have behind the scenes!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve met so many people throughout my journey that have helped me immensely, but my biggest supporter and motivator has always been my grandfather. When I was growing up, China was very different from today, it was much less developed and recovering from the aftermath of the cultural revolution. My grandfather was self-taught in so many different areas like chemistry, agriculture, and even in building day-to-day items like kitchen pots and pans out of survival and necessity. Though it was a cultural shift, the revolution brought starvation and poverty to families, and there were nights when he had to eat stew made from tree bark and leather belts… but this didn’t stop him. He became one of the most cited successful chemists in China and President of Lanzhou University.

He’d take me around the rural areas in China and show me that so many people who don’t have the financial means or opportunities still have incredible skills and innovative ideas, but they don’t always get the chance to show the world. These areas sometimes had no running water or electricity, and his goal was to show me how much help the world needs and encourage me to be one of those people helping others.

My grandfather nourished my curiosity for the world by showing me the interesting part about problem-solving. It’s about using your unique set of skills and experience to make a lasting impact on the world.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I use every opportunity I can to mentor the upcoming generation of leaders just like people have done for me. Through Pepper’s technology, the team and I are putting in a lot of hard work to make this company the gold standard for the future of drug discovery. This means continuing our mission of finding new cures for untreatable diseases.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. It’s all about the people — Don’t hire for skillset only.

Motivated people with high drive will be phenomenal in any work environment. Our head of business development, Caitlin, came to us with a banking background. She had no sales experience but was highly motivated and took ownership of her work. She ended up building a massive network of relationships. Because of this, we’re on track to sign multiple partnerships before the end of the year, well ahead of our initial plans. Had we been hung up on the fact that she didn’t have the sales experience, we would’ve missed out on a great teammate and leader.

2. Pitching highly innovative ideas is about finding the right partners and not changing people’s minds.

Building on each other’s ideas is essential and creates a lot of value by opening new ways of thinking about growth. Arguing with folks very rarely gets you anywhere.

3. Be yourself.

Don’t think about how others want you to act. You don’t have to be that typical entrepreneur who is prim and proper, like a caricature of corporate America. Like-minded people will gravitate towards you when you show up as yourself, leading you to a stronger team.

4. Listen broadly, but make your own decisions.

Everyone has opinions, and they’ll likely contradict each other at times. Get as many perspectives as possible and make decisions based on what’s best for your mission and vision.

5. Know why you’re starting a company.

Inevitably, you’ll have bad days. Remind yourself of why you started the journey, get out of bed, and keep moving forward.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d try to get people to be more curious. Curiosity is the foundation for human progress, whether we’re talking about innovation in science or social science. We need curiosity to understand how things work and why others think the way they do.

In solving physics problems, we learned that simply changing your point of view can make an intractable problem solvable. That goes for most things in life. New perspectives can make challenges easier to overcome.

Unfortunately, our society’s infrastructure is built to dampen curiosity, and we frequently read and subscribe to things that reinforce our pre-held beliefs. For instance, our social media and purchasing patterns get analyzed, and we’re sent ideas that we already agree with, which doesn’t inspire curiosity or creativity.

Whenever possible, I’d encourage everyone to consider new ideas and perspectives, get out of your comfort zone and bring the right people into the room to challenge you along the way. There’s no doubt it will benefit you in the long run.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I live by hundreds of quotes, but my favorite would have to be the following by Eddy Zhong: “No one has ever changed the world by doing what the world has told them to do.”

This quote is very relevant to my life goals and Pepper Bio. What we’re doing isn’t traditional; we’ve created this technology to find solutions that may be applicable in other areas of medicine and drug development. In life, people will tell you to follow a traditional path and emphasize how hard it is to do something different than those before you, but early on, I noticed something. If you look at the history of the world, things have generally been changed by the outliers. The nontraditional, nonsensical approaches, the people who dared to be different and build upon a traditional foundation made significant, notable progress toward their end goals for the greater good of humanity. Trying to affect change can’t be done the exact same way each time if those methods aren’t working and moving us forward. That quote has resonated with me since the first time I heard it.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Pepper Bio is solving a multi-billion dollar problem in today’s drug discovery industry; the time and costs it takes to bring drugs to market. Our technology, dubbed the Google Maps for Drug Discovery, maps out the best treatments for diseases, whether that be discovering the new use of an old drug or the development of a new drug. Our methods cut costs and accelerate timelines, all while using reliable and repeatable methods.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @Pepper_bio

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

The Future Is Now: Jon Hu Of Pepper Bio On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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