Nabiha Saklayen, Matthias Wagner, Marinna Madrid, Stan Wang


Harvard Physics Department, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Harvard Medical School


Biotech & Life Sciences, Advanced Manufacturing

Powering transformative cellular therapies using lasers and nanotechnology.

“Anything is possible.” However trite, that is the maxim of the induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cell. Of the 40 trillion cells in the human body, almost every single one can be programmed from one of these special cells. A Nobel prize-winning discovery, iPS cells have helped transform the possibilities of cell engineering. Yet, even with their inherent potential, persuading iPSCs to become functionally mature cells has been challenging for therapeutic use. Until now.  

Cellino has built the first platform that enables precise control over iPS cell fate in their natural environment. Their proprietary delivery technology, NanoLaze, delivers synthetic biology tools to control the sequence of genes being turned on and off inside a cell. This offers precise, “digital” control over cell fate. The technology steers iPS cells to a target cell state, creating any mature cell at will. Need healthy neurons? Or kidney cells? Whatever the cell type, Cellino’s platform has the potential to create them.

Cellino’s platform is 10x faster at writing programs to make functionally mature cells that are critical for clinical therapies. That means that more cell types can be created, more successfully, at a speed that makes them useful for dozens of shots on goal for cell therapies. It is a technology that will help us heal ourselves, faster.  

The speed, precision, and reliability of Cellino’s platform is thanks to an intentional convergence of seemingly disparate specialties including physics, nanofabrication, photonics, synthetic biology, and stem cell biology. As CEO Nabiha Saklayen remarks, “It’s vital that we’re not all biologists, as taking a single track biological approach over the past few decades has hit roadblock after roadblock.” For the Cellino team, the only way to truly change biology is to look for answers with new approaches from unexpected disciplines.

Saklayen met Marinna Madrid, Cellino’s co-founder, while both were pursuing their doctorates at Harvard. The duo soon realized the complementary nature of their skills—Madrid’s nanofabrication expertise and Saklayen’s work with pulsed lasers. Their relationship gave rise to three patents, several peer-reviewed papers, and a venture-funded startup.

Surprisingly, it was a competition entered on a whim that validated the commercial potential of the pair’s technology. Saklayen and Madrid entered the Startup Challenge at the 2017 Society for Optics and Photonics conference where Madrid pitched the technology as a platform to treat blood diseases such as cancer and HIV. Her pitch bested those of 130 other companies to win the $15,000 grand prize, beating established corporate players and academic teams.  

The Startup Challenge victory made something clear to Saklayen: she and Madrid needed to get smart about engineering and biology. Quickly.

Enter Matthias Wagner, who joined the team shortly after the competition. Wagner, a successful entrepreneur and founder in his own right, is an expert in photonics and bringing early-stage hardware technologies to market. After their first meeting, Madrid and Saklayen knew that Wagner had to be a part of Cellino. Matthias’ engineering skills have made Cellino’s technology commercialization-ready.   

On the biology side, Saklayen had met Stan Wang at George Church’s Harvard lab. She remembers, “He was the most impressive person I’d met in the field of regenerative medicine, so why not ask him to join us?” Wang is an MD/PhD who earned his doctorates at Columbia University and the University of Cambridge under Sir John Gordon, a 2012 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to stem cells. As a physician-scientist, Stan has linked Cellino’s powerful technologies to their therapeutic applications in regenerative medicine.

Cellino’s leadership—Saklayen, Madrid, Wagner, and Wang—share a vision for the impact of a technology platform built from convergent disciplines. It’s a vision of a world in which any cell type in the body can be produced on demand for any therapy. One in which humanity no longer lives in fear of its most insidious diseases. The company is putting this vision into practice with retinal cell therapies, the first area of focus for its multi-faceted platform.

Cellino’s vision is bold, it is big, and it will take time and effort to realize. But, as Saklayen says, “we’re absolutely committed to doing it.”

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