Raised in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana, Maureen Hillenmeyer was interested in science and technology at a young age, due in part to her parents being focused on computers. Maureen recalls being fascinated by biology, going to NASA’s space camp, and thinking about becoming a doctor.
Recruited to the University of Notre Dame as a competitive swimmer, Maureen majored in biology and took classes in computer science. With the human genome project underway and bioinformatics flourishing, Maureen was interested in the connection between biology and computers. She also had the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research in a lab at Notre Dame. She did basic programming to analyze large amounts of DNA sequencing data.
Maureen’s lab experience steered her away from medicine and toward research. After graduating from college, she worked for a year in a lab as a research assistant. During that year she confirmed her interest in research and decided to apply to PhD programs. Reasons for pursuing a PhD included being able to do her own research and learn more about genetics, and that it is a prerequisite for many biotech jobs.
After considering several PhD programs, Maureen chose Stanford. She liked the location, the faculty, the students, the integration of biology and informatics, and the combination of bioinformatics and medical informatics. She was also interested in training in yeast genetics, which is unique and important. She sought out a university and a lab with expertise in yeast genetics; Stanford met these criteria.
While equipped with a solid biology background, in getting her PhD, Maureen found it necessary to go deeper in computer science, chemistry, statistics, and biomedical informatics.
Maureen’s PhD research involved screening large numbers of drugs against different yeast strains. She sifted through a large dataset and developed algorithms to predict the mechanisms of these drugs and to apply learnings to human cells. The result of that project was impactful and it is becoming possible to do work in human cells.
While pursuing her PhD, Maureen was exposed to the entrepreneurial environment at and around Stanford. She got to know countless numbers of people starting companies, and the lab she worked in was extremely entrepreneurial. The general environment around Stanford was that commercialization was good for science and was a critical way to translate discoveries to patients more quickly. This led Maureen to take an “MBA 101” course to learn about starting a company.
After completing her PhD, Maureen stayed at Stanford as a postdoc working in a lab focused on the discovery and engineering of natural products. Natural products are drugs from nature, which includes drug like penicillin and statins. These are drugs found in microbes and plants around the world.
Historically, natural product drugs have been discovered by accident or brute force. But Maureen thought it was possible to improve the process for discovering natural drugs by adding computation to the equation. She downloaded all publicly available genome sequences of microbes from around the world—and was blown away by the number of genomes or sequences that were encoding natural drugs that no one had studied. By using computation it is possible to sift through hundreds of thousands of genomes to pinpoint and prioritize the ones that are encoding drugs relevant to human patients. These efforts have led to breakthroughs on the experimental and computation side.
Based on this learning, Maureen could see a clear path to commercialization. As a result, she participated in co-founding Hexagon Bio as a private company to commercialize these research ideas. She has raised $20 million in venture capital for Hexagon, which has 24 employees. Maureen is spending her time as a scientist-CEO focusing on science, management, and fundraising; looking ahead to preclinical and eventually clinical work; and starting to talk to potential partners about commercialization.
Maureen sees huge potential for Hexagon to grow into a unique, next-generation, data science-driven drug company that takes a very different approach to drug development compared to traditional biotech and drug companies.
In reflecting on her journey, Maureen has enjoyed being at the intersection of multiple fields and feels satisfaction in using research to have a major impact on the world. She sees great value in her PhD, in her biomedical informatics knowledge, and in the network she has built along the way.
“I knew I wanted to do something in biomedicine, something research related, and something that would have a big impact on the world.”