The discovery of the microbiome and its importance to human health has unleashed a frenzy of scientific activity. Yet as the wealth of information about microorganisms that live in and around us continues to accumulate, we still don’t have a reliable way to control one’s microbiome to improve health. Cheri Ackerman, CEO and cofounder of Concerto Biosciences, would like to change that.
“We are coming to understand more and more just how powerful these microbes are in shaping our health and in shaping our immune systems,” Ackerman said. “And the question is, well, why don’t we have those products yet?”
To support her work in this area, Ackerman has received the Hertz Foundation’s Harold Newman and David Galas Entrepreneurial Initiative Award. Ackerman plans to use the $25,000 grant to help her company find solutions for human health and agriculture using unique ensembles of microbes.
The annual prize is awarded to Hertz Fellows who propose the most innovative entrepreneurial projects, with particular emphasis on collaboration among fellows. Awardees also receive mentoring and feedback from entrepreneurs within the Hertz Fellows community.
The underpinning technology of Concerto Biosciences is the kChip: a device made from silicone polymer containing 43,000 micro-sized wells, each acting as a tiny test tube. The kChip serves as a platform for screening for useful ensembles of microbes 100 times faster than before. Different bacteria and fungi are combined in myriad ways to understand how these organisms perform together. The goal is to derive useful end products for improving plant health in home gardens, to develop cleaning solutions for households, or even to solve devastating fungal disease in crops for farmers.
In translating this technology to the human microbiome, Ackerman’s goal is to harness combinations of microbes that work in harmony to solve ordinary problems. Looking to the skin microbiome, for example, she is developing therapeutic creams that alter the skin’s microbial ecology to treat common disorders, such as eczema and rashes, and to even heal wounds.
As a Hertz Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Ackerman sought to understand how metals like copper move through the body and how deficiencies can lead to chronic disease. As she neared completion of her PhD, her focus shifted to high-throughput biology—the development of technologies that would allow her to survey large sets of molecules and identify their uses all at once.
This led to undertaking postdoctoral research in bioengineering at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, where she met one of the kChip’s inventors, Jared Kehe, now the chief scientific officer at Concerto Biosciences. Kehe and Hertz Fellow Cameron Myhrvold, who was also conducting postdoctoral research at the Broad Institute, collaborated with Ackerman to develop the kChip into a high-throughput diagnostic tool.
With compatible working styles and a like-minded drive to solve high-impact problems, Ackerman and Kehe decided to start a company. They founded Concerto Biosciences along with Adil Bahalim, head of business development, and Bernardo Cervantes, head of research, in February 2020.
Introduction to Entrepreneurship
Ackerman credits her time as a Hertz Fellow as critical in starting her down the path of entrepreneurship.
“I didn’t know what entrepreneurship was until I started going to Hertz workshops and meeting people who had taken the science that they were working on during their PhDs and postdocs and building companies,” she said. “I realized that becoming an entrepreneur is a tangible and concrete way of taking new knowledge and having it directly impact people’s lives.”
The Hertz workshops allowed her to see the breadth of possibilities in biology and challenged her to think big as to how technology and scientists can positively impact the world, she said.
Ackerman expects within a year to have demonstrable information to develop Concerto Biosciences’ first product and sees the company becoming a central player in the microbiome industry.
The Harold Newman and David Galas Entrepreneurial Initiative has supported collaborative entrepreneurial projects led by Hertz Fellows since 2012. The initiative was established by Harold Newman, an active member of the Hertz Foundation’s board of directors and a longtime supporter of the foundation. Through Newman’s substantial endowment, the award has helped enterprising fellows establish 11 companies and develop new technologies with real-world impact.
About the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation
The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation identifies the nation’s most promising innovators in science and technology, and empowers them to pursue solutions to the world’s toughest challenges. Launched in 1963, the Hertz Fellowship is the most exclusive fellowship program in the United States, fueling more than 1,200 leaders, disruptors, and creators who apply their remarkable talent where it's needed most—from improving human health to protecting the health of the planet. Hertz Fellows hold 3,000+ patents, have founded 200+ companies, and have received 200+ major national and international awards, including two Nobel Prizes, eight Breakthrough Prizes, the National Medal of Technology, the Fields Medal, and the Turing Award. Learn more at HertzFoundation.org.