Dartmouth Professor Gerngross Elected to National Academy of Engineering

February 9, 2017

Professor Tillman Gerngross has been elected to The National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Professor Gerngross joined Dartmouth's engineering faculty in 1998 and has since co-founded five highly successful biotechnology companies "in the discovery and manufacture of biopharmaceuticals" — GlycoFi (acquired by Merck), Adimab, Arsanis, Avitide, and Alector. He also completed a three-year term as vice provost of Dartmouth’s Office of Entrepreneurship & Technology Transfer in the spring of 2016.

Election to NAE honors those who have made outstanding contributions to "engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature," and to "the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education."

"The NAE has elected a very deserving individual," says Joseph Helble, Dean of Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. "Over the past 15 years, Tillman has become one of the most respected entrepreneurs in the biotechnology industry — co-founding several successful companies and developing technologies that many thought were impossible, beginning with his work to engineer yeast-based systems to produce fully-humanized therapeutic proteins. He is also one of our most outstanding teachers, dedicated to helping students find and follow their own passion toward the benefit of humanity."

For Gerngross, applying his passion for connecting science to human needs through engineering has lead to a remarkable 20-year journey:

Production

In 2000, Gerngross built his first startup, GlycoFi, around a concept that most experts said couldn't be done: create a genetically-engineered yeast strain that produces fully human glycoproteins. In 2006, Merck & Co acquired GlycoFi for $400 million in cash, just six years after the first experiment was done in his lab at Thayer School. The new engineered yeast not only increases production capacity for therapeutic proteins, but also allows for the exquisite control of a protein’s glycosylation making it safer, more efficacious and cheaper to produce these important drugs.

Discovery

In 2007, Gerngross co-founded Adimab. "We said, we're going build the best technology to discover antibodies and then make that technology broadly available to our partners, who can then use the antibodies we discover to make more efficacious, and safer drugs," says Gerngross. With operations in both Lebanon, NH and Palo Alto, CA, and with just under 100 employees, Adimab has booked over $50 million in revenue last year alone and has partnered with many of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Adimab’s partners currently have four drugs in clinical trials and the company expects at least four more to reach that stage in 2017. 

Purification

In 2013, Avitide was born out of Gerngross’ lab at Thayer. He co-founded the Lebanon, NH-based company with Kevin Isett Th’11, former Thayer researcher Warren Kett, and and Jon Sheller ’09.

"When you engineer a living cell to make a protein-based drug," says Gerngross, "that cell is in a fermenter making lots of the drug, but it's also making a lot of other stuff you don't want." Avitide has been able to significantly improve the otherwise difficult process of selectively purifying the active drug substance at the expense of all the other contaminants. The company currently employs 35 people, has partnered with several major pharma companies, and has so far secured $16 million in venture financing.

Targeting

Both Arsanis and Alector were co-founded by Gerngross with the goal of targeting specific diseases — infectious disease and Alzheimer's-related neurodegenerative diseases, respectively. Arsanis, based in Waltham, MA, was founded in 2010 and will be spending the next year or so testing its new antibody-based therapy against ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) in phase 2 clinical trials. Alector, based in San Francisco, is just three years old but has already raised over $70 million to pursue novel antibody-based treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

After growing up in Austria and the United States, Gerngross received a master’s degree in biochemical engineering from the Technical University of Vienna (TUW) and then joined Arnold Demain’s microbiology lab at MIT while earning his PhD in molecular biology also from TUW. In 2000, just two years after joining Dartmouth, he published his surprising analysis in Nature Biotechnology and Scientific American: "How Green are Green Plastics?" This work marked his turning point away from the effort to make plant-based plastics, and he was soon drawn instead toward the challenge of creating better ways to discover and make novel therapeutic drugs.

NAE is part of the National Academies, which also includes the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. Gerngross is one of 84 new members and 22 foreign members announced yesterday by NAE President C.D. (Dan) Mote Jr. This brings the total U.S. membership to 2,281 and the number of foreign members to 249.

Other Dartmouth members of the NAE include Professor Eric Fossum, Professor Emeritus Elsa Garmire, and Professor Emeritus Bob Dean. The formal ceremony inducting Gerngross into the NAE will take place this fall in Washington, DC.