Discover more from The World In A Grain of Sand by KdT Ventures
Who I am: Blair
As a firm, the team at KdT has decided to publish long-form biographies to help the folks we work with learn more about who we are as people. Our hope is that the openness and vulnerability that comes from sharing our stories will help enable dialogues with all our partners, most importantly, current and future KdT founders. Cain, Mack, Phil, Rima, Patrick, Ally, and Yusuf have previously published their stories. Here’s Blair’s. Here goes nothing…
I grew up in Big River, California – population, 1,300; temperature, 120ºF. As a 5-year-old girl often biking through the desert heat might suggest, I have never let my surroundings confine me. Earlier in my life, I attributed my restlessness to growing up in a small town. In retrospect, I was restless because I wanted to reach beyond my small world and sought challenges to test the bounds of my strength and resilience to get there. Ultimately, this self-determined mindset, coupled with the pain of watching my family struggle with health complications, oriented my life to try to solve the immense difficulties in advancing scientific knowledge with my personal mission to benefit the lives of others.
In my small town of Big River, I started a challenge that exposed me to the world – reining horses (but without the horse-girl energy). Reining is a western equestrian discipline that tests the ability of riders to look effortless while controlling 1000lb horses running full speed through intricate patterns. The discipline is famous for sliding stops – where riders cue a galloping horse to stop, the horses lock their hind legs, and leave 30ft skid marks plowed through the dirt. Reining throughout middle school and high school, I was passionate about what the sport embodied: finding the physical limits of yourself and partner (your horse) while working together to act as a single unit . My family made the selfless decision to move to Prescott, Arizona, so my sister and I could train regularly. We drove countless hours for lessons and horse shows while becoming enmeshed in the reining network. Though reining isn’t a team sport, it is a tight-knit community. I dedicated myself to training, and through commitment and practice, I was able to reach the pinnacle of the sport in my age division: North American Reining Champion.
Beyond the accolades, my reigning community - fellow riders, trainers, and organization officials - left the most lasting impression. These people not only worked hard to advance in the sport but also to help others through volunteering, starting scholarships, and building youth programs. They encouraged me to see the power of my voice - that it can reach beyond a small town, activate the voices of others, and invoke change. I was elected president of the National Reining Horse Youth Association, and had the opportunity to lead 10,000 youth reiners across the world. What started as an 11-year-old girl struggling mightily to control a horse ended up shaping a resilient work ethic, stoking a competitive drive, and building a deep appreciation for community empowerment - something I use to this day to reach beyond my small-town roots.
While reining was exhilarating and showcased the impact of my hard work, it also provided an outlet for me as my family faced serious challenges of their own. Both my mother and sister suffer from chronic nerve damage - the aftermath of numerous surgeries and a major injury, respectively. They rely on pain medication to simply bear daily living. However, as many know, most drug treatments come at a physical cost. My mom and sister suffer limited physical mobility and endured multiple hospitalizations due to pharmacologic side effects. For years, I have observed the restorative power of medications, witnessed the agony they can inflict, and grappled with the duplicitous nature of their palliative and painful effects. Witnessing their pain and suffering, I turned to science to find an avenue through which I could directly impact my family’s well-being, a challenge that led to my passion for pharmacology and drug discovery.
I inherited my enthusiasm for science and chemistry from my mother. In high school, I actively sought opportunities to deepen my passion for applied chemistry. Through internships at the Hawaiian Agriculture Research Center (HARC) every summer in high school, I learned how to apply science and technology to ensure the viability of agriculture in Hawaii. One of the most impactful projects involved using radioactive cobalt-60 to induce random genetic mutations in papaya seeds. After the initial treatment, we would plant the seeds to uncover the impacted traits. It was powerful to witness first hand how chemistry could drive far-ranging phenotypic traits in the papaya, including enhanced taste, disease resistance, and yield.
Hooked on the power of chemistry, I attended Duke University to pursue a degree in chemistry. Duke was the ideal choice for many reasons; however, the tipping point in my decision-making process happened when Duke professor, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (a recurring character, but I’ll return to that). After enrollment, I found a home to apply my chemical knowledge in the Pharmacology Department. I first worked in the lab of Dr. Madan Kwatra, exploring targets to personalize treatments of glioblastoma patients. Next, I joined the lab of Dr. Edward Levin, developing potential combination therapies to combat nicotine addiction. In addition to publishing on multiple combinations of pharmacologic therapies that reduced nicotine administration in rats, I also discovered ~chemistry~ with my fellow lab partner (now, husband). Through these experiences, I experienced the earliest stages of drug development: from patient-derived cancer models to animal behavior. I wanted to then characterize the molecular underpinnings driving these responses.
After graduating from Duke, I was awarded the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA). Through the IRTA program, I joined Dr. David Sibley’s lab in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The lab studies G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which are targets for >30% of all FDA-approved drugs. Specifically, the lab focuses on finding selective drugs for a subset of GPCRs, dopamine receptors, that are common targets in treating many neurological diseases. Through the use of pharmacologic and genetic manipulations, I aimed my research at skewing dopamine receptor signaling towards more precise molecular signaling pathways. Currently, most drugs that bind a single target still trigger a multitude of signaling cascades in a cell. When you combine this effect with off-target binding to other proteins coupled with interactions across unique cell types throughout the body, the unintended signaling consequences increase exponentially. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the largest causes of side effects by drugs.
Captivated by the untapped potential of GPCRs as selective drug targets, I sought an institution with a strong community of GPCR research to complete my PhD. In a truly full-circle moment, Duke University had the foremost expert of the GPCR field - Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz. Hence, it was an easy decision to return to Duke to earn my Pharmacology PhD to focus on GPCRs. When searching for my lab home, I was drawn to Dr. Nikoleta Tsvetanova’s lab at the intersection of functional genomics, proteomics, optogenetics, and high-throughput quantitative techniques to dissect biochemical and spatial regulation of GPCR signaling. My thesis committee was stacked with the most inspiring GPCR scientists and groundbreaking pharmacologists: Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, Dr. Marc Caron, Dr. Laura Wingler, Dr. Donald McDonnell, and Dr. Kris Wood. I am grateful for their influence on my training and life to this day. During my PhD, I uncovered another complexity of GPCR signaling networks: the duration of receptor activity and precise location of receptors in the cell mediates different outcomes following binding of a single drug. To study this, I developed optical tools to readout protein activation and transcription with single-cell resolution as well as approaches to alter native locations of proteins in cells. Despite publishing my findings and creating many tools to fuel research, I became restless knowing that this work would take decades before it could translate to differences in the clinic – a common challenge facing academia.
Given the challenge of translating scientific discoveries from academia to real-world applications, I next sought to explore the entrepreneurial side of science, which led to discovering the world of venture capital. At this intersection of science and business, I found groundbreaking technologies and therapies that had the potential to transform healthcare. More importantly, I became inspired by the relentless passion of entrepreneurs, giving their hearts and minds to translate technology to impact patients and our planet. I instantly knew I wanted to be involved – underwriting the significance of scientific discoveries, communicating their value to those that can best support them, and helping alongside founders as they build. Through brute force, I created opportunities to engage with the biotech entrepreneur community while at Duke. I studied biopharma markets and venture creation at the Fuqua School of Business. I earned a certificate of Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Duke Graduate School. I trained as an Associate with Duke Capital Partners for 2 years, managing their deal flow pipeline and specializing in biotech diligence. Building my commercial mindset and muscle, I recognized that I could effectively translate the value of innovation of biotech startups to investors, and in doing so, help early-stage companies succeed.
I found KdT Ventures in the last few years of my PhD by searching for VC firms with strong connections to scientific founders. Through a networking chain of incredibly impressive scientists, Dr. Kris Wood and Dr. Michael Goldberg (both who later became founders within KdT’s portfolio companies), I was introduced to Phil Grayeski at KdT. Learning about their team, their investment thesis and their approach, I realized I had found the niche I was looking for: amongst scientists wanting to uncover disruptive, innovative technologies that would improve the lives of patients - patients like my mother and sister. I got my toe in the door at KdT by joining their Fellows Program, a group of young scientists wanting to taste venture, and where I had the fortune of running diligence on stealth biotechs they were assessing. I was immediately drawn to the unique lens that KdT uses to evaluate the scientific integrity of opportunities while fostering reciprocated respect among founders - they sought challenges, which if overcome, would deliver hope and health to people in need. I kept my foot in their door by staying on full-time with the team through an internship. During that time, I witnessed the KdT family – their collaborative spirit, genuine care for each other, and passion that everyone brings to their work. I knew KdT would be my home following my PhD defense, and I launched myself through their door the second I could.
I have always sought to challenge myself and, at KdT, I find myself among like-minded peers who all love to push the boundaries of themselves and the fields we invest in. Most importantly, we’re solving challenges that will result in longer, healthier lives for people.Together, we are driven by stimulating technologies with the goal to positively impact people's lives.