10 min read

A Kaleidoscope of People: Dr. Mandana Manzari Honu

We're excited to introduce 'A Kaleidoscope of People', a series of posts that will focus on the incredible individuals behind Kaleidoscope. From childhood fascinations to professional endeavors, the aim of the series (which will occasionally pop up in our blog) will be to give readers a more intimate insight into who our team is. Each of these posts is actually done as an in-person chat (think: coffee on a couch), so what you're reading is a conversation between two people. To kick things off, Bogdan sat down for a chat with Mandana in Tribeca – we hope you enjoy!

Preamble: professional background

Dr. Mandana Manzari Honu joined Kaleidoscope in January 2023 to focus efforts on building efficient, powerful software for scientists and leaders in biotech. She is also a strategic and scientific advisor to multiple early-stage therapeutics companies and VCs. Prior to joining Kaleidoscope, she spent two years serving as Head of Scientific Assessments in corporate business development at ARCH-backed tech and manufacturing company Resilience, after nearly 15 years as a scientist and engineer in academia and start-ups. At Resilience, Mandana led and sourced equity investments, newco creation, academic partnerships, strategic alliances, and licensing deals. She also led evaluation of technologies and therapeutics spanning all modalities and applications. Mandana joined Resilience after completing her postdoctoral work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she trained a team of graduate students and headed research efforts in nano delivery of precision medicines for cancer therapy in Dr. Daniel Heller's lab.

Mandana is an inventor on multiple patented therapeutic proteins and her research publications have received more than 300 citations. She is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke University. Mandana spent fifteen years as a laboratory scientist at the NIH, UMD, GWU, Harvard, MIT, Duke, and the Sloan Kettering Institute. Her protein engineering and antibody development training in Dane Wittrup’s lab at MIT resulted in a debut publication and start-up role at an associated spinout, Eleven Biotherapeutics. Her PhD projects in Dr. Tosh Chilkoti’s lab at Duke explored cancer therapeutics ranging from biomaterials applications for recombinant protein delivery, aptamer-targeted small molecule delivery, probiotic-based drugs, multivalent protein-based therapies, as well as a collaboration with Dr. Kris Wood in genome-editing approaches for studying cancer drug resistance. Throughout her career, she has always pursued a deep passion for interdisciplinary problem-solving.

Now that our readers know more about your background, let’s continue along this professional vein and kick Q&A off with this: what is something you think is challenging or difficult, specific to your industry?

I think one thing that's really hard, and people underestimate a lot, is how to generate value at the early stages of biotech, especially in discovery. For one, I think there are a lot of pitfalls in reproducibility — translating things from an academic setting or in really early stage discovery, into industry. Culture is another major challenge for early stage biotechs: you want people to feel motivated to do things and feel a sense of true ownership. Creativity is the third pitfall — you want to have this sort of freedom to create, discover, and improve on how things are done. Companies that can’t operate at the intersection of these three things basically lose their value and don’t get to a point of clinical translation of their product or drug. And what ends up happening is that we redo a lot of science and recreate a lot of data that isn’t shared or accessible, which is a major frustration for me. It drives how I think about business partnerships in biotech, and how to reduce ego in them in order to maximize value.

Have you seen this done really well somewhere? This convergence of motivated individuals, creative thinking, and data sharing, leading to reproducible, impactful science?

One that pops to mind is a foundation focused on chordoma that was started out of Duke. I heard about it during grad school there and found it very inspiring. An 18 year old student there got this really deadly, rare disease called chordoma cancer, and so his mother started advocating for every scientist who does any research on chordoma in the world to come together and share data. So there was a motivation to get creative, share data, and reduce the ego, and they’ve gone on to do a lot of amazing clinical trials. On the opposite side of the disease incidence spectrum, we’ve seen it work really well with COVID, with the early incentive to share, support, and reproduce data about things like the structure of the spike protein. So people were putting data up on accessible platforms and creatively coming together because they realized that if there wasn’t a reliable way to reproduce early findings, we wouldn’t have what it takes to actually get to a vaccine. Those are two opposite extremes: everybody is susceptible or a very small group is susceptible. And then we have this huge gap in the middle, where all the money is, and that’s where I think the economics are driving everything at the expense of these three core pieces.

You’ve shared the challenges you think companies face and how they can work around those. What about on a more individual level? Like if someone was interested in moving into the field, what advice or caution would you share with them?

It's quite basic: really take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn, focus on yourself, and don't listen to people who are trying to take shortcuts. One of the things that I heard a lot of, that always felt wrong to me, was that people were trying to compete with each other within the same program. I found that pretty silly, because every PhD and career trajectory is different. For me, I always try to remember that there are so many people who may be invisible to you, but who are working so hard or are incredibly smart or staying in the lab super late. It’s pointless to focus on others — instead, just compete with yourself. I also remember how people would take shortcuts in their learning, to try and more quickly gun for a consulting position or a high paying job. Sometimes this was even encouraged by professors or full programs, and it felt wrong to me. There are so many human beings out there that have to work three jobs, or never get the opportunity to go to school. I’ve seen this in my own family — some never got formal education. And so I remember being teased by my PhD cohort when I would take really hard classes in different areas, like structural biology or something that had nothing to do with my core degree. And people would tell me “That's the hardest class, don't take that, that's gonna hurt your GPA.” I would always take those classes, and make sure I was taking advantage of the opportunities to learn and absorb as much as I could.

On this topic of advice for people, what’s a really underrated or overrate piece of advice you’ve received from someone?

The most underrated advice I got was something that Bruce, my mentor, said to me: “It's not who you know, but who knows what you know.” That’s why I think it’s so important that you're open to learning and taking on challenging concepts — these will give you opportunities that you never dreamed of. If you're really passionate about a specific path and open minded to learning a lot of different things, then you can actually build true understanding as well as know your own limitations. And then when you engage with someone else from that field who you admire, and they see how you’re thinking through things, you can really quickly build respect, camaraderie, and mentorship, and create new opportunities for yourself. As for overrated advice, that would probably be about how it’s really important to be able to steel yourself to emotion in a professional context. I took that advice for probably 12 years, and I think my career only took off when I just recognized what elements of my emotions most improved my professional success, and let them out of the box. The biggest one of those, for me, was empathy. I heard from a lot of people that having too much empathy and being too involved in the emotional outcome of your decisions as a leader is going to hold you back or make your team weak. But I disagree. I found that I was always able to inspire or motivate more effectively if I understood my people.

I agree. I think that finding ways to productively tap into your emotions, and maintain awareness of other people’s states around you, can be a very powerful driver for success. Ok, so far, anyone following along with our conversation probably has this sense of you as a thoughtful, driven, hard-working scientist that’s achieved a lot (and will achieve plenty more) in her career. Is there something most people would be surprised to find out about you?

Yes! My friends know this, but I’m low-key a dog whisperer. In my neighborhood, I have trained many dogs out of habits like guarding toys, taking food, barking at other dogs, or pulling on leashes. A lot of people in my neighborhood think I'm a dog walker, when I give them a tip. They’ll be walking their dog and pulling or holding the leash very taut, and I'll tell them to relax their hand, which makes their dog much more calm. And then they like look at me and they're like “Oh, are you like a dog trainer?”. My family didn’t have a dog growing up though — it wasn’t until grad school, when I started researching dogs as seriously as my PhD, that I began learning about how to train a dog, and eventually I ended up getting Panko.

And what about reading — when it’s not the latest articles about a new clinical trial or leap in scientific technology, what are you turning to? What’s the last good book you read?

The best few books that I've read recently is the Daevabad Trilogy. I really love magical realism and fantasy, and this was one of the most meaningful fantasy books that I’ve read because it's actually Muslim fantasy. So a lot of the magical stories are based in Muslim myths about genies, and the setting is in the Middle East. So all the descriptions of the genies, and the main character who's a female healer, and the bazaars, and all of the different sort of… environments or aesthetic settings, are so familiar to me. And I've almost always read magical realism and fiction and that kind of stuff that's very Anglo-oriented. Don’t get me wrong, I love Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but it's just like a different feeling; to feel like a story is in in a completely different place that understands you. So this trilogy was special because it was both incredibly, beautifully told, and also the setting is so transporting and meant a lot to me.

Having read so much fantasy, is there a character (from any book) that you look up to?

Lyra in the Philip Pullman trilogy. She shaped a lot of my passion for integrity and loyalty.

Love that. Speaking of transporting settings and the emotions they evoke in us: do you have a really salient childhood memory that you could share? Sounds like it won’t be pet-related, which I totally get as a fellow immigrant — I think many immigrant families don’t believe in having dogs in the house!

Haha, exactly! One that comes to mind is when I went to Iran for the first time, after we immigrated to the US — I think I was eight. And the first thing that I noticed after hugging and kissing everyone was that my grandmother's joints were incredibly deformed. I remember asking my mom about it and she told me that my grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis. My grandmother’s thumb was bad, like bending in the wrong direction. I remember staring at her fingers, and I didn't really think about what she would feel like because I was a child. Her knees were in bad shape too, they were so inflamed. And I remember watching her knit and marveling at how incredible of a knitter she was, given her disabilities and the pain she was in. She made a sweater - red and white with short sleeves - and even though it was the summer, I decided that that was my lucky sweater. I must have worn it every single day in fifth grade — I was SO sure that it was critical to me getting good grades. That was a really great memory. I actually recently saw a picture of myself wearing that sweater, at my mom's house.

Continuing along this tangent of past vs present, here’s a thought. It’s 2063. We've invented time travel, but there’s a constraint around it: you can go back to any point in your life and interact with yourself, but you only have 10 seconds to do so. What point do you go back to? What do you do or say?

I think I would go back to 2006 when I was at MIT I will just tell myself, the hour following when I got 100% in my multi variable calculus exam, to stay humble. That was a very major turning point in my undergraduate life. I think I got very complacent after that, and I just assumed that I wouldn’t have to try very hard. And I think until 2063 and well past that, I will continue to prove to myself that you can’t ever get complacent.

Oh, I’d love to dig into this answer more and hear the full story, but I’ll save that for another time. Here’s one I’m curious for your take on right now. Our team at Kaleidoscope is distributed across several cities. You’re based here in New York (Brooklyn, to be more precise). Let’s say your best friend is visiting you for one day, and you want to convince them to move to NYC: what do you do with them that day?

Okay. In the morning, I would take them to Dead Rabbit for an Irish Coffee. Best Irish coffee in New York City and amazing vibes. And then we would walk along the Hudson and take the ferry from Wall Street to Greenpoint, and get our friends together at Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. on the roof for lunch and beers. After that, we’d probably go shopping in Carroll Gardens- great neighborhood for unique clothing boutiques. We would end the night at Banzarbar. That’s a fabulous speakeasy above the restaurant in Freemans Alley in Manhattan. That way, we’re doing the chillest and coolest version of everything and avoiding the tourists — Dead Rabbit in the morning, ferry instead of the train, and so on.

People, vibes, and food. Sounds about right for NYC! Ok, last question: lions or tigers?

Lions. I think it’s the hair. They’re just so different from everything else. I feel like tigers look like other cats, and I like the wildest version of everything.

Thank you for reading! If you want to chat more about anything we wrote, or you’re interested in finding a way to work together, let us know!