Winding Back the Clock

Osman Kibar (BS ’93) wants to turn back time. His business, Samumed, makes drug therapies that may reboot the body’s capacity to renew damaged or diseased tissue. If these efforts pay off in full, society will see cures for everything from baldness to cancer. According to Kibar, this ambitious endeavor benefits from a little bit of Caltech thinking.

“Caltech showed me that there’s no reason to put arbitrary boundaries between different fields, whether it be science or business,” he says. “If you’re trying to solve a problem, you go at it with everything you’ve got—what you’ve learned in every other field.”

Kibar sees his San Diego-based firm as part of a new technological phase: “the life economy.”

“The scale of technology is going from microns to nanometers, which is the scale of proteins and small molecules—the scale of life,” Kibar says. “We work on biology with an engineer’s mindset. Biology offers the potential applications; engineering and physics offer the solutions.”

Pathway to Panacea

Samumed’s pipeline ranges from early-stage investigations into Alzheimer’s disease to clinical trials for osteoarthritis and alopecia. In between are studies of degenerative disc disease, gastrointestinal cancer, and psoriasis.

The possibilities proceed from the same biological mechanism, called the Wnt pathway. This set of biochemical processes tells stem cells what kinds of tissues they should grow up to be.

“We basically cracked the code of the Wnt pathway—we can modulate its activity in a safe manner,” Kibar says. “That’s the key. Modulating is easy. But to do it safely, that’s the challenge.”

Starting from the ability to recode the behavior of stem cells, Kibar and his colleagues aim to prompt the body to heal parts it currently can’t, whether due to damage, disease, or aging.

“We can pretty much tell any progenitor stem cell in the body, ‘Hey! You’re not doing your job. Get back to work!’” he says. “We aim to bring people’s health back into balance, so the patient is no longer a patient and can go back to his or her active lifestyle.”

Take Five

As a high school student in his native Turkey, Kibar won a European mathematics championship. Next, he wanted to pursue his passion for science and math in the United States. But he also sought to gain chops in entrepreneurship.

He heard about one typical road: a PhD in science or engineering followed by an MBA. But that road includes a pitfall—after training in business, research skills grow rusty and scientific knowledge obsolete.

Kibar built a curriculum that flipped the usual on its head in Caltech’s 3/2 Program. Students obtain two bachelor’s degrees in just five years—three years at any of about a dozen top liberal arts colleges, then two years at Caltech.

First, Kibar earned a BA in mathematical economics at Pomona College, then a Caltech BS in electrical engineering. His aim was true: He founded two technology companies while pursuing his PhD at UCSD.

“The 3/2 Program gave me a unique perspective. I never shied away from thinking about how I could put science to good use. Every time I learned something new in the sciences, I had this nagging drive to see, ‘What can you apply it to?’”
- Osman Kibar

With the broad scientific training and business insight gained from his 3/2 Program experience, Kibar went to work in New York City’s venture capital and private equity world. He later started his own technology incubator in San Diego. Eventually, Samumed flourished and pushed aside other ventures. It has since become the world’s most valuable biotech startup.

“Once we started getting positive results, it didn’t require too much creativity to guess that if it pans out, it’s really going to be big,” he says. “I had to do it justice.”

Giving to the Givers

With the wealth built from Samumed and his earlier successes, Kibar provides for the causes that matter to him.

“I don’t see the point in just hoarding cash,” he says. “There are places that played a big hand in who I am today, that share my values, and I’d rather give to the givers, as opposed to the takers.”

Kibar has directed some of his philanthropy to the Caltech Fund, which provides flexible resources for the Institute’s highest priorities. He holds fond memories of the special culture on campus.

“At some colleges, everybody is worrying about getting good grades, getting a good job, getting the most money they can,” he says. “Instead of that hamster-wheel mindset, everybody at Caltech was there because it was their passion. I felt at home.”

He adds: “There’s that image that everyone’s a nerd. Even if that were true, at Caltech people would say, ‘So what? If I’m a nerd, I’m a nerd. I’m going to spend my time and brain power learning more about what I love.’”


Giving Priorities