At MIT, a Culture of Innovation “Never Gets Old”
With support she received at the Institute, Leila Pirhaji wants to bring computational systems biology to the marketplace.By Meg Murphy
Since Leila Pirhaji PhD ’16 arrived on campus six years ago, she has earned a doctorate in biological engineering, developed pioneering software, and launched an ambitious startup. Yet time and accomplishments have not lessened her giddiness about one thing: She is at MIT.
“Even as I’m graduating, I can’t believe I’m here,” said Pirhaji. “Sometimes you get somewhere and you’re like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s it.’ It loses its sparkle. But MIT has never been that way. It never gets old,” she said.
A native of Iran, Pirhaji has had to make some sacrifices, too. Her visa restrictions, for example, make travel impossible. “My parents miss seeing me,” she adds, “but they know I have more opportunities here. The possibilities here are incredible. Whatever you choose to do, there is support.”
Pirhaji speaks from experience. She knows how to make good use of whatever is on offer. She thinks fast, learns fast, talks fast, and wants to work, as one might guess, in a fast-paced industry. When she decided to take a minor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Pirhaji read about the i-Teams course and approached Luis Perez-Breva, the co-director and lead instructor for the program, and told him about her research, ending with: “Now I want to figure out what to do with it.”
“I see it as really unique to MIT that you don’t just learn how to develop or invent a technology. You see how you can use it to impact the world right now,” Pirhaji says. She has. Her recently incorporated startup, ReviveMed, is the result. Already in talks with Pfizer and Teva, Pirhaji will eventually offer pharmaceutical companies subscription access to a software platform that mines biological data to systematically discover new uses for existing drugs.
The benefits of repurposing drugs that have proven safe for human use but just never reached a commercial market are vast. This tool holds enormous potential value for both the pharmaceutical industry and for patients with neglected and rare diseases. In terms of pioneering work, Pirhaji is among the first to leverage large-scale metabolomic data for this purpose.
The startup itself, said Pirhaji, was made possible by the abundance of support she received at MIT — the i-Teams program, StartMIT, StartIAP, the MIT100K, and the Sandbox Innovation Fund Program. Her very first presentation was “super not-clear and super scientific — no one understood me, like they thought it sounds cool but they weren’t sure what it was.” She learned, on many levels, how to focus the idea. Her progress was such that her first pitch session is now held up against the final one as a class example: an illustration of the trajectory from unshaped to finely honed.
“The culture of innovation is so common. One of my best friends is also starting a company,” Pirhaji says. “The support is really instrumental. I would never be able to do any of this without it.”
Now Pirhaji, gesturing with enthusiasm, a large MIT Brass Rat prominent on her hand, could well be describing herself when she talks of the people that set MIT apart: “Everyone is doing these crazy cool things and they are really down-to-earth. Their enthusiasm about so many different things is contagious.”