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Scientist-turned-entrepreneur steers efforts to transform approaches in tissue regeneration. (The story of Hanadie Yousef, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Juvena Therapeutics and a 2023 Emerging Pharma Leader.)
Where roots form and the soil in which they grow differs for every person in the pharmaceutical industry. The first spark of interest for Hanadie Yousef, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Juvena Therapeutics, in the industry was at age 15 when she enrolled in a college-accredited science honors research program while a sophomore in high school. During that time, she had the opportunity to do research under the mentorship of two women scientists at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, where she conducted gene therapy and oncology research.
From there, Yousef was full steam ahead to get a PhD and pursue her love of drug discovery and development. She skipped a grade in high school and attended Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in chemistry and minoring in Spanish. Her PhD program was at UC Berkeley in chemical biology and molecular and cell biology. There, she did interdisciplinary research at the intersections of bioengineering, neurobiology, cell, and chemical biology. At the end of her first year in graduate school, she enrolled in a course called stem cells and directed organogenesis with Professor Irina Conboy and her husband, Mike Conboy. It was in this course that Yousef was exposed to the biology of aging and fell in love with the concept that would ultimately define the path of her career and lead to the founding of her business, Juvena Therapeutics.
In addition to an impactful education and mentors, Yousef had a personal reason for pursuing a career in pharma.
“I attribute a lot of my ambition, perseverance, and appreciation of education to my parents, who were born refugees,” says Yousef. “My father’s story, in particular, was one that really inspired me. He had grown up in a UN-administered refugee camp in Jordan and had taught himself English. The British Council, in partnership with Oxford University, was giving, at the time, two scholarships to the entire Jordan kingdom to outstanding students to have a full ride in scholarship to get degrees at Oxford. My dad applied. He was selected as one of two students…It was education that opened so many doors and opportunities for him.”
Unfortunately, her father’s health declined due to multiple comorbidities and chronic diseases, which was yet another inspiration for her work in rejuvenation.
“[T]hat was also part of that inspiration for me to want to develop methods to promote tissue regeneration, in order not just to rejuvenate tissues, but rejuvenate lives,” says Yousef.
When Yousef describes her work in rejuvenation, she explains that she learned there are ways to target mechanisms in the body at both the cellular and molecular levels to reverse the process of aging as well as to promote health span. At the time when she first entered the space as a graduate student in 2009, she recalls how many companies were focused on end-stage terminal diseases, trying to understand disease pathology that doesn’t consider the natural aging process.
When asked to describe her research and goals at Juvena, Yousef explains how their science works: “Ultimately, our platform at Juvena is focused on developing a pipeline of disease-modifying biologics that can target underlying mechanisms that lead to the loss of tissue homeostasis in the context of both aging and degenerative diseases—including rare diseases that we can target with our platform with these disease-modifying biologics to either halt the progression of the disease or [in the best-case scenario] reverse and promote regeneration and repair.”
Specifically, Juvena is currently targeting people once they are diagnosed with the disease.
Yousef describes herself as a scientist, entrepreneur, and businesswoman who—together with her co-founder, Jeremy O’Connell, PhD—built Juvena from the ground up. As the CEO and co-founder of a company that’s growing (with 27 employees currently), she takes a hands-on approach to just about every aspect of the company but prioritizes recruiting, retaining, and empowering a leadership team. One role she didn’t expect to enjoy as much as she does is networking with industry partners and the financial industry, which helped Juvena raise more than $60 million.
“Throughout the business and scientific communities, there are outstanding industry veterans, and even angel investors and early-stage scientists and entrepreneurs, who have opened so many doors for Juvena,” says Yousef. “I attribute much of where we are today and the opportunities that we’ve been able to take advantage of to the mentorship and support of smart, generous, and passionate individuals who recognize the potential of our vision, our commitment, and our leadership team.”
One priority for Yousef is to give back to the industry. Juvena has been a supporter of StartX (a nonprofit organization of entrepreneurs that are affiliated with Stanford that formed a community to help one another), Nucleate Bio (an opportunity for graduates to pursue inventions and ideas that could lead to a company), and others.
Anyone talking to Yousef can see that she is incredibly passionate about the research she does, the company she’s formed, and the people she works with. She is also passionate about diversity and making sure those she partners with share that passion.
“I think that diversity in science is part of what makes science thrive,” she says. “If someone is judging me or Juvena for the wrong reasons, there are so many other folks out there who will judge us for the right reasons. There are a lot of folks out there who are willing to be there for the right reasons: for the data, for the science, for the mission. They don’t care about the color of your skin or what [gender] you identify with. To me, the most important thing is making sure that everyone has a seat at the table.”
Yousef describes that she is on two missions, which are to create:
“Juvena plays its part and our supporters play a part in promoting diverse perspectives and individuals in order to accelerate innovation and better decision-making that lead to important scientific discoveries. We must invest in making sure that more women and people with diverse experiences are leading and founding companies,” says Yousef. “We need more women investors, more women in C-level positions, and more opportunities for women to advance in their professions—particularly women with underrepresented backgrounds and experiences. We need to create policies and a culture that promotes and nurtures an inclusive environment.”