Amani Gillette Amani Gillette

Amani Gillette: An entrepreneur’s journey to improve cancer care

Cellular therapies, such as Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and stem cell therapy, are promising new avenues in cancer treatment and regenerative medicine. Many of these therapies are still in their infancy, requiring further development to increase efficacy and accessibility.

This is where Amani Gillette, founder of SeLight, LLC, is focusing her efforts. SeLight is currently developing a device that could revolutionize cell manufacturing by allowing researchers and clinicians to screen cell health and fitness before manufacturing. The technology won a Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) Innovation Award in 2018.

Morgridge Communications sat down with Amani — who is also a postdoctoral research associate at the Morgridge Institute for Research, in the lab of Melissa Skala — to learn more about the company, the science, and its impact.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As you were completing your PhD and considering next steps, what inspired you most about taking the entrepreneurial journey with SeLight? Was it a difficult decision?

Yeah, it was. Partially because entrepreneurship is not super stable, but I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue it in Dr. Melissa Skala’s Lab at Morgridge. Melissa and I work really well together and we have done so for quite a while, so I had the safety net of a familiar work environment with a lot of support. Learning about how to be an entrepreneur is definitely the quickest rabbit hole of learning that I’ve gone down since I started my PhD. I always make my next career decisions based on where I’m going to learn the most, because that’s something that keeps me excited about what I’m doing. I never thought that I would be an entrepreneur, but there was the opportunity to do it in this group and I figured it was one of those “this is the best time to try it” kind of situations, right?

What were the initial steps you took to turn your idea into reality?

The idea of turning our research into a startup predates me — not my time in the lab, but my time on the project. We started with bench research, found some really interesting results, and then got IP protection and funding for further development through WARF. That was the starting point for everything. Although a lot of people were helping develop the SeLight system within the lab, it was nobody’s main focus. There needed to be someone whose job it was to focus on SeLight and build it out, and that just coincided with when I was wrapping up my PhD.

I also went to the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp, which was my first exposure to the business world. It was a week of chaos, but in a good way! I learned a lot very quickly, and it was very, very helpful to learn the building blocks and become familiar with the vocabulary that I would later use in all of my NSF I-Corps interviews. Business is a completely different language than science and engineering. There’s different acronyms, there’s different everything, so if you’re not familiar with it, you can flounder pretty quickly.

Can you tell us about your experiences during the NSF I-Corp? What did you learn?

The NSF I Corps program was wild! It is a seven week-long government-funded program to support academics in conducting market research to validate whether their idea is even worth pursuing. We were required to do 100 interviews in seven weeks — you’re just talking to people constantly and getting a better picture of how the actual ecosystem you’re hoping to break into works. You learn who the main companies are, who the people at different companies are, what their titles and roles are, who’s in charge of purchasing, and where decisions are being made. On the clinical side, I learned how hospitals make decisions about purchasing new equipment and how clinicians think about these problems. It definitely led to a few pivots in where we thought we would end up but all in good ways, because now we have actual data from interviews to help support where we’re going with this project.

Walk me through the basics of SeLight technology — how it works and what problems it is solving.

SeLight technology is built off of the bread and butter of the Skala Lab: label-free imaging of cell metabolism. SeLight technology is a little different because it’s based on a system that is lower cost and more customizable for adding on to existing systems. It works by measuring the inherent fluorescence of metabolic signals within cells to give a readout related to the health of those cells, and does this in a way that doesn’t require specialized training from experts. So you just have to load the sample and then click “Run” and it’ll go, which is really beneficial for consistency and repeatability of measurements, as well as saving on labor and time.

The technology has implications for solving quite a few different problems. One main thing we’ve looked into is the health of T cells before CAR T cell manufacturing. CAR T cell therapy is a novel therapeutic that involves actually taking T cells from the patient, genetically modifying those cells in a biomanufacturing space, and then turning them into cancer-killing T cells — basically supercharging them. Unfortunately, manufacturing takes quite a while and when clinicians are deciding if a patient is eligible for this treatment, they have no real test to determine whether that patient’s cells are even going to be healthy enough to go through that full manufacturing process. Our system would be able to measure that cell health, pre-manufacturing, to help filter patients down to those who are most likely to get the best benefit from this very expensive novel treatment.

Beyond CAR T cells, we also have quite a bit of data looking at other immune cell types, as well as looking at stem cell reprogramming. So generally, I’d say that we have implications for measuring cell fitness in the cell therapy space, but we’re starting with the CAR T cells since that’s where we have the most traction at the moment.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you so far in your development of SeLight?

I think one of the most surprising things comes from the fact that I’m a scientist first. So I’m always like, “we have this crazy idea and it’s really cool!” But do people care about it? I’ve done a few pitches like Summerfest Tech in Milwaukee, I participated in the Institute for Biomedical Entrepreneurship Training in Boston, and I presented at the Wisconsin Tech Council. It’s all about how you sell the project. One of the challenges is that selling the project involves not talking about the science that much, which is counterintuitive to me. So that’s been a big learning curve.

From a personal standpoint, I’d say one of the biggest developments has been my ability to just talk with people. I would say I’m an introvert, so doing an NSF I Corps —where I was forced to cold email on LinkedIn and then hop on Zoom calls constantly for seven weeks — really developed my ability to just talk to people and ask, “Do you want to talk about this? I’m willing to talk about it!” That was not something I was super comfortable with before.

As a local entrepreneur, do you feel a sense of responsibility or commitment to giving back to the community? If yes, how do you approach community involvement through your startup?

The city of Madison and the surrounding area have done a lot for me as a scientist. I got my start through the Youth Apprenticeship Program, where I started working on the UW–Madison campus as a junior in high school. That’s where I fell in love with science. It’s always important to help ensure that students know what science is like, because science in the classroom and science in the real world are two very, very different things. So, through my role in Melissa’s lab, I’ve emphasized outreach. One of the first things I asked when I joined the lab in 2016 was if I could mentor a youth apprentice, and we’ve had one every year since then.

We do a lot of outreach with both Morgridge and UW–Madison through summer science camps and other activities. I helped run an online science outreach program with PBS Wisconsin called “Meet the Lab.” Middle school students can use this online resource to learn about the science we’re doing in the lab and why it’s important.

At SeLight right now, we’re still at a very early stage. But once the company gets more funding and gets off ground, I foresee encouraging high school students to be involved with the research that occurs. The SeLight imaging system provides easy-to-interpret data, and so I think that lends itself very easily to outreach with kids to encourage them to stay interested in science.

SeLight could improve cancer therapy for thousands of patients. What is your dream outcome for the company 10 years from now?

My dream outcome is that SeLight systems are being used to help identify which patients are most likely to benefit from cellular therapies. I also want to help reduce the cost of cellular therapies across all hospitals, not just larger research hospitals. The system is straightforward enough to set it up and work in a standard lab with a microscope, so it would be awesome if it could be widely used to help patients, ensure that they’re getting the treatment that’s going to work the best for them, and save lives.