Though she sounds every bit the polished Silicon Valley CEO while discussing spin-ups, revenue streams, and funding runways, Dr. Tina Boville first describes herself as “a huge nerd.” via Zoom. A CU Biochem doctoral alum, Tina grew up on Anne McCaffrey’s science-fantasy series Dragonriders of Pern, which heavily incorporates themes of terraforming, genetic modification, and the celestial future of humanity. These stories inspired in Tina the belief that we can and should engineer our own lives for the better. Because of that vision, she is now an MIT Technology Review Top Innovator under 35 (awarded to “exceptionally talented innovators whose work has the greatest potential to transform the world,” the founder of her own company, and already putting her science to work improving lives.
Tina first joined our community as an undergraduate in MCDB. Like many scientists of note, Tina's undergraduate experience was somewhat unmemorable. However, while pursuing her bachelor’s, Tina landed an internship at pharmaceutical giant Amgen here in Boulder that would prove quite the boon. After graduating, Tina stayed on with Amgen for a couple of years prompting her decision to return to CU for a PhD in Biochemistry. While she didn’t know what her next step would be, “teaching was something I enjoyed, and thought was important.” So, as a doctoral student, Tina joined CU’s Graduate Teaching Program, which she quickly rose to lead. Though she says she loved her teaching opportunities, it was another experience at CU that would provide a platform for Tina to reach for the stars of her childhood novels.
It was here at CU Biochem that Tina set the foundation for her future entrepreneurship at CU Green Labs. First piloted by then Kuchta Lab postdoc Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar in 2007, CU Green Labs was one of the first programs of its type in the nation, improving sustainability in research through equipment sharing, recycling, and energy-saving incentives. Today, it is recognized as a national leader, host to the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories Conference in 2019. Kathy described Tina as an “amazing person,” and made sure to note “[Tina] recently took the time to share via Zoom her career path with my current CU Green Labs student assistant and give advice for when they leave CU to look for that next step in their career,” while setting up the interview for this piece.
Working with Kathy Ramirez-Aguilar, Tina would become program lead for the [then] recently built Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building, where she worked to improve sustainability in reagent purchasing and waste disposal without compromising the science of JSCBB’s research groups. Tina’s own achievements include the ubiquitous pipette box recycling bins you’ve seen around campus: “The work with CU Green Labs set me up on thinking about Green Chemistry.”
What is Green Chemistry, you might ask? In Tina’s words, Green Chemistry is “a catch-all for what we do, and not that new of an idea.” Tina cites the American Chemistry Society’s 12 Principles of Green Chemistry as a sort of Messianic tablet for her work, which proscribes ways chemistry can be made safer and more efficient. Dicta include designing for energy efficiency, reducing derivatives, and maximal incorporation of material into products during synthesis. The aim of the ACS principles, and Green Chemistry on the whole, is “making processes more efficient.” This all may sound a bit dry, until one considers just how integral chemistry is to our everyday lives.
Take, for example, the Lithium cobalt(III) oxide in your phone battery, the cetirizine you take to manage pollen allergy, the all-trans retinoic acid in your acne cream, or the liquid crystal cholesteryl benzoate forming the words on this screen. For our phones to call, for our trains to run, for our loved ones to get better, these compounds need to be synthesized: “We really need to make those chemicals, they’re critical.” However, producing such compounds in the quantities we need (which are increasingly engineered by us) can be a costly and wasteful process. Often even the precursors need precursors, and only a small fraction of the starting materials end up in the final product. Enter Aralez Bio, co-founded by Tina in 2019, and noncanonical amino acid (ncAA) synthesis.
After the University of Colorado, Tina won a prestigious Resnick Prize Sustainability Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology where she began working with Nobel Laureate Frances Arnold on directed protein evolution. Working with Professor Arnold, Tina would develop a novel enzymatic pathway capable of synthesizing stable amino acids beyond the 20 that form the building blocks of all life on earth. It would also serve as the foundation for Tina's push into the private sector. These resulting noncanonical amino acids can then be used to form a dizzying array of novel compounds in what Tina aptly calls “chemical LEGO.” Most importantly, and not unlike our own physiology, the enzymes used to make these ncAAs are preserved during synthesis. The result: no more exorbitant waste to product ratio, and a growing set of new blocks to build with: “Just like LEGOs, you need different pieces to be able to build Yoda, or Luke.” Without the pieces, processes like drug synthesis are slow, wasteful, difficult to standardize. For pharmaceutical companies, this means reducing the economic and environmental cost of drug manufacturing while scaling new drugs to market demand more quickly. As Tina puts it, “enzymes hit 10 of the 12 Principles,” so, after her fellowship, Tina used her postdoctoral work to co-found Aralez Bio with postdoctoral lab mate Dr. David Romney, and Prof. Arnold as an academic co-founder.
According to Tina, bringing a professor on in an advisory role is “common for companies spinning out research worked on in that [investigator’s] lab.” Although not necessary for biotech startups, Tina says advisors “typically have good experience on the relevant tech and can provide insight on directions the field will be headed.” With Tina’s vision and Dr. Arnold’s experience, Aralez Bio is making impressive progress on its mission: “We can now make hundreds, and will be able to make thousands of kilograms [of ncAAs] by the end of our program.” This summer, Tina also secured a Shaw Rocket Fund award for Aralez Bio, a clean tech grant program through Caltech for companies working to reduce hazardous waste and greenhouse gas production.
Though Tina says she sees the impact of COVID on her industry, she and her company show no signs of slowing down. Aralez Bio recently moved from a shared business incubator to a standalone facility to comply with social distancing guidelines—a move not possible for many smaller outfits who’ve been forced to suspend operations in response. Funding streams have also been slowing as the pandemic continues. For her part, Tina has been working to source lab equipment from auctions held by other labs who weren’t so lucky: “Running a business is a totally different set of skills—it doesn’t matter if you’re a really smart scientist.” Fortunately, Tina appears to have exactly the skills she needs, and the scientific world is taking notice.