Matthew Scholz / Marc Studer photo
By Douglas Esser
It was a Pitch Night for students, but the University of Washington Bothell course called it “Hell Night” for good reason. They had to pitch a business plan to outsiders who were invited to class to give their frank opinions.
The cold slap of reality left some students in tears, recalls Matthew Scholz, a 2003 graduate in Computing & Software Systems.
He loved it.
Scholz started his first company from that class. It was a fleet-logistics service that helped route construction, service and delivery vehicles. He sold the company five years later and went on to launch a series of startups that would apply computer science to the field of biology.
Scholz founded Immusoft and was CEO from 2009 to 2017 and remains on the board. The Seattle company has built a platform for genetically programming a person’s immune system to produce its own medicine. He now leads Oisin Biotechnologies and its spinoff OncoSenX, two companies designing gene therapies to treat age-related diseases and cancers, respectively.
As a biotech CEO who hasn’t had a biology class since junior high school, Scholz has faced intense questioning from skeptics and investors. He has also heard objections ranging from “the anti-GMO crowd on the left to whether you're playing God on the right.
“’Hell Night’ was the first time I had to get on a stage and defend a pitch,” he said, “but real investor presentations can be far more challenging. If you’re not forced to address the issues they raise, then your plan probably isn’t going to change the world.”
Born in Kent, Washington, Scholz grew up in Vancouver, Washington. He started writing code when he was 8 years old and attended Clark College as a Running Start student. Scholz transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle to major in computer science. He then switched to UW Bothell so that he could have a job and take classes at night.
Because he needed the credits and it fit his schedule, he took a business class about new technologies and future markets.
“It was one of the best classes I've taken,” Scholz said. “That strange sequence of events really altered the course of my life quite a bit in that I met a professor there, Alan Leong.”
Scholz took another course taught by Leong about software entrepreneurship. It featured “Hell Night.” Scholz had planned to find a job writing code. He never planned to start a company until he found himself in Leong’s courses.
“It altered the trajectory of my life,” he said.
From tech to biotech
Beyond his fleet logistics company, Scholz also worked in computer security, web infrastructure and mobile app development. About a decade ago, his experience in programming and background in technology led Scholz to the insight that “information is the essence of life.”
When life and disease are viewed through the lens of information, the solutions naturally gravitate toward the manipulation of information — rewriting DNA — through gene therapy.
“The reason that you're you is information,” Scholz said. “Information is really what defines life, so why don't we treat diseases with information instead of chemistry? My plan at the time was to build an app store for the human body.”
That idea led to Immusoft and Immune System Programming. It’s been tested in mice, and the company is asking the Food and Drug Administration for approval to start human trials to treat a rare genetic disease.
Oisin, which is developing transient gene therapy to remove degenerative “zombie cells,” is even more audacious. “It’s a fundamental shift in the way we deal with medicine,” Scholz said.
Out of the lab
Scholz’s long-term goal with Oisin is to make the technology accessible to everybody and to improve the quality of life for people as they age.
“Take our mice, for example. They still die, but they live 20% to 25% longer,” he said. “They don't progressively get sick and frail; they are healthy and then die rather abruptly.”
Scholz also co-founded Sigma Genetics, which is developing a tool to deliver DNA into cells that he hopes will enable new kinds of gene therapies. As a biotech entrepreneur, what he loves to do is to “take ideas out of the lab and into the real world.”
Leong, the instructor, said Scholz was one of the first of several disruptive innovators he saw as students.
“Matt is quirky, outrageous, funny and has an unorthodox way of viewing the world. I learned to never write off a quirky student,” said Leong, who is putting together a podcast with alumni such as Scholz.
Pitch Night returns
Leong, who taught at UW Bothell from 1997 to 2010, said the first “Hell Night” was held in 2001, and “it was much more raw. Critics were harsher.” Yet the experience launched real businesses. By the time the last one was held in 2010 there were 500 guests in the North Creek Events Center.
Leong has been teaching at the UW’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship since 2011. He’ll also be teaching at UW Bothell in spring 2020 and bringing back Pitch Night.
Leong said UW Bothell gives undergraduates “more room to be scrappy,” which perhaps makes it a good place for students such as Scholz who see things differently.
“Is it hubris or truly brilliant? It turns out he’s both,” Leong said.