Professor Wei-Chung Yang has come full circle. A graduate of TMU’s undergraduate College of Nutrition, she is now Professor in the Program for Translational Medicine and the Graduate Institute for Biomedical Informatics, and founder of the biotechnology startup V-Check, Inc.
Yang’s scientific curiosity has motivated her from a young age. As a high school student, she read issues of Scientific American and biographies of scientists, including that of Marie Curie, who she still describes as “my idol.” During her undergraduate studies, she chose to go to Academia Sinica for a summer student program, where she learned about cell culture and other basic lab techniques.
Having built her foundation in biology in Taiwan, she enrolled in the University of Texas Health Science Center for an interdisciplinary PhD program. Yang reflects that the freedom students were given there to design a program of study was “very good, because we could have a broad scope to try to solve the questions we wanted to ask.” She worked with a mentor to investigate the extracellular matrix, a network of attachments surrounding cells that may regulate cells migrate to other tissues, a process that occurs in events as fundamental as embryogenesis or pathogenesis as cancer cell metastasis.
After a postdoctoral fellowship at Academia Sinica, Yang returned to TMU to join the faculty and took on the challenge facing all fresh professors: applying for her first research grant. Although one possible avenue for her research was to investigate the role of the extracellular matrix in cancer development, competition in this area was fierce. Savvy, she decided to take a different approach. Turning to the unique environment at TMU, which offers opportunities for extensive opportunities for interactions between clinicians and basic scientists, she got to know many medical doctors from different specialties. That led to her learning about endometriosis, a condition in which endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus, which can result in ovarian cysts, chronic inflammation in the pelvic region, and infertility. She realized there was a need for research into endometriosis, and a potential for improving diagnostic methods for endometriosis. Up until now, the standard for diagnosis remains a surgical procedure called laparoscopy followed by histopathological analysis. “Women are very hesitant to accept that diagnostic procedure,” Yang says. “A lot of women notice they have endometriosis from [first going to the clinic for] infertility. If they hear they need invasive technology to confirm this, they will back up – ten miles away!” She realized the need and the fit with her basic research interests and successfully applied for her first grant with this topic.
Yang spent the next several years carrying out basic research in endometriosis. Simultaneously, she developed her knowledge of endometriosis in the clinic, joining doctors in reproductive medicine for daily morning meetings, collecting clinical samples, and studying medical records, procedures, and patient concerns. Then in 2015, she was awarded what she refers to as “an unusual research grant” from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), it provides seed money to support a research team with innovative technology to become a startup (Research grant name in Chinese: 應用型研究育苗專案計畫). Although MOST grants usually provide funds for only scientific research and not company-related (commercialization) purposes, this grant was a “seeding fund” with the explicit goal of helping basic scientists start companies in order to turn their innovative discovery from basic research into real products. Yang’s lab was specifically scouted for the grant, with a MOST-assigned team spending time in her lab over the course of a year to evaluate the quality and maturity of her research, which set off her journey to entrepreneurship.
Basic science research and entrepreneurship can be complementary, but also require different skills and the ability to adapt to the unique requirements of each. “Different brain! … I need some time to wash my brain [when going] between academics and industry,” Yang says. Elaborating, she describes how “we can ask hundreds of questions in research, and you can explore whatever you are interested in – but for a product, there is something you need to follow, you have to follow clinical guidelines, regulations, ISO guidelines, and you also have to think about patents.”
A notable source of support during this transition has been the BioLadies group, founded by fellow women biotechnology entrepreneurs Grace Yeh and Jo Shen. Its members include those with expertise in pharmacy, basic research, accounting, and finance. The group shares information on LINE, and even has different “subgroups” – including a choral subgroup, and a book reading subgroup, which recently discussed John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. With the challenges of balancing the multiple demands of research, entrepreneurship and family life, Yang says that “in the BioLadies group, we have the same questions and challenges so we can share our experiences in the group.”
Meanwhile, Yang’s startup is currently raising Series A funding for clinical trials of its inaugural product. Yang hopes that as V-Check continues to grow up and become established, she can continue to do research and develop new products to make further contributions to women’s health. She is also passionate about helping future budding entrepreneurs. Taiwan is well known for its IT industry, but the structure for biotechnology development is not as well established, and biotechnology products often require a longer period of investment and growth. She points out that the support of TMU has been critical for the success of V-Check, allowing her space to contribute her time to both her academic research and her entrepreneurship endeavors. She hopes that her story will encourage universities and the government to continue to support future biotechnology startups, and also encourage young faculty members with an eye towards entrepreneurship to begin to “cook” their studies: “Because we are all in the field of biomedicine, we are doing research with benefit to patients. If it is a good discovery, it has to become real.”