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Fruit Flies, Burning Man, and Creating Time: The Gordian Founding Story

April 18, 2024

Martin Borch Jensen and I studied and worked in separate scientific fields in different parts of the world before our shared interest in aging and entrepreneurship crossed paths in the spring of 2018. We both had a vision for what kind of company we wanted to create, both scientific and cultural. We’ve carried this vision forward in all of our dealings, from hiring to partnering to accepting investment. Our founding story is a fun part of this, so we recently asked a friend to interview us so we could share how we ended up a 30-person company working toward curing age-related disease.

Martin Borch Jenson, CSO and Francisco LePort, CEO of Gordian Biotechnology
Gordian Co-Founders Martin Borch Jensen (Left) and Francisco LePort (Right)
A large infographic that is a graphic representation of how Gordian was founded. This article explains the image in detail.
Francisco LePort in front of computer

Francisco: My academic and professional background is in physics and data science, not biology. However, starting in the early 2000s, I followed my mom’s work with Dr. Michael Rose, a University of California, Irvine professor. They are somewhat renowned for their work on aging and longevity, especially a study involving fruit flies where they got them to live four times longer than fruit flies normally live.

Dr. Cristina Rizza, Francisco’s mother, is a retired cardiologist, novelist, and biotech entrepreneur.

I helped my mom analyze data over the years and got very excited about the research, especially when Genescient was able to do increasingly more genetic and genomic sequencing on these fruit flies. In addition, I had seen my grandparents pass, seen my parents aging, and was becoming more and more aware of where it was all going for myself, my kids, and anyone I cared about. So, when I was ready to start another company, I decided that I wanted to focus on aging.

Prior to Gordian, Francisco, age 38, co-founded Tachyus, a software company focused on digital transformation and energy sustainability.

But I knew I needed a partner with a biology background. Fortunately, my long-time friend Laura Deming was general partner of The Longevity Fund, a venture capital firm focusing on pharmaceutical companies developing therapies for age-related disease.

Both Laura and Francisco entered college at age 14, although Francisco is eight years older. Laura’s father introduced her to Francisco as someone to talk to who shared that experience.

I asked Laura and others in my network if they knew anyone with a deep biology background in aging, and interested in co-founding a startup, and the same name kept coming up–Martin Borch Jensen.

Martin Borcsh Jensen in college

Martin: About the time that Francisco was starting college, I was reading existentialist philosophy trying to figure out the meaning of life. I don’t think I found a final answer, but I concluded that staying alive was a necessary component. That basically defined everything I’ve been doing since. I decided I needed to become a scientist, studied nanoscience as an undergrad, and then went to the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore for my Ph.D. I did my post-doctoral research at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, where I worked with, yes, fruit flies! 

I got an attractive grant to start my own lab, but I realized I didn’t want to spend the next five years studying fundamental biology in fruit flies. I wanted to do something with a more direct impact on people. I started exploring what I could do instead, spending time talking to people and companies. I decided I wanted to do a startup and got involved in launching two of them, but decided that neither was the right fit. And then I heard from Francisco. We met for the first time at Cinderella Bakery in April. Francisco told me about his background in AI and machine learning, his studies of the long-living fruit flies, and his interest in aging, and I was like, yeah, he’s smart. This is promising.

Francisco: We both wanted to start a new company and focus on aging, but we didn’t know if we’d be good at running a company together. It wasn’t enough to have complementary backgrounds on paper; we had to ensure we aligned on our core values.

Martin: We’d both had experiences with other co-founders and were very intentional about making the right decisions for this one. Francisco had left the company he founded before Gordian, so I asked him point blank, are you just a quitter? I remember he took the question very seriously and was not at all defensive. His answer was self-aware and introspective, which I really valued. 

Francisco:  We referenced Noah Wasserman’s book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, which includes a questionnaire designed to evaluate potential co-founders, among other things. We added our own questions to the questionnaire and did extensive reference calls with family, friends, previous co-founders, and colleagues.

Martin: While we were working on whether we’d be a good fit from a values perspective, we were also working full-time trying to develop ideas and figure out if we had a vision good enough to create a company around. We cycled through a dozen ideas over the summer but didn’t land on anything solid. A few months before, we decided to go to Burning Man together. We thought, let’s put ourselves into a crazy new situation and see what happens.

Francisco: A lot of it was like, let’s get to know each other in a social context to find out: What we care about? Who are our friends? What are our values? What are the things that we’re interested in? And we wanted to put ourselves in a totally unique situation to see if that would inspire something new.

Martin and Fancisco at Burn Man in 2018
Francisco LePort and Martin Borch Jensen at Burning Man in 2018.

Martin: Burning Man was critical because before, we were primarily working from Francisco’s living room with his family running around, so I got to see what his life was all about. But we’d only really been discussing things logically, which doesn’t say much about how we’d each react when things got messy. Francisco had been planning to build an art car for Burning Man, which was a pretty serious (and fun) engineering undertaking. I signed on for that and got to see how Francisco pulled the ideas together and led our team of friends in getting it all assembled and out there. And he got to see that I got on well with his core friend group. 

Francisco: So now, back to the fruit flies my mom had been working with. Part of my motivation for pursuing her research was my mom being close to retirement and being interested in leveraging the existing IP and commercializing the research in some way. The issue we ran into was traversing the distance between long-living fly genetics and human disease. 

Martin: So now it’s after Burning Man, which, for me, is always very draining both physically and emotionally. We’d been going back and forth on various ideas for months, and each time one or both of us would shoot the idea down. And at this point things got a bit tense for both of us because we hadn’t settled on anything. We had an argument that ended up being a good experience and very productive – a week later we had the core Gordian idea.

Francisco: Yes. The real idea came when we asked ourselves if we could take arbitrary genes, e.g. from the long-living fruit flies, and test what it does to a diseased organ. Martin kept saying that we don’t fully understand how aging works, the only way to test drugs for age-related diseases was to actually use old animals.

We took that idea further: As most people know, mice are the standard model for testing treatments that might translate to humans. But we thought, what if we could go even farther with larger, more representative animals? We quickly pivoted to that and asked, is there some way to make that happen? 

Martin Borch Jensen looking through a microscope

Another driver for us was advancements in two technologies in the prior five years that could allow us to pursue this idea–single-cell sequencing and gene therapy. We thought we could combine these two precision technologies to do something that would have been inconceivable five years ago. 

Neither of us knew a lot about gene therapy. So we cold-messaged Chris Towne on LinkedIn, who was heading up gene therapy at another biotech company then, and invited him to dinner. 

Chris Towne is now VP of gene therapy at Gordian.

We discussed how easy or hard it would be to modify genes in various animals and tissues and see what happens. And this is where it all started to come together.

Martin: If we could target specific genes in specific cells within the tissue and then use single-cell sequencing to read out the biological effects, we would be able to test hundreds of targets at the same time in the context where results are most likely to translate to humans. That’s the progression that landed us where Gordian is now.

Francisco: We’d been talking to Laura throughout the entire process, along with several others in our network, and we all agreed that the idea had potential. At this point, Laura was running her own VC firm, Longevity Fund, and she was excited about moving forward. There was a moment when we were sitting at Laura’s desk, and she said, can you put together a proposal for how you would use capital? So we put that together, and she called the next day and said she wanted to lead the seed round, which was awesome.

Martin: I think it’s probably helpful to mention how we made decisions about dividing responsibilities from the early days–we didn’t postpone that conversation because it was uncomfortable. We made a list of core company functions and where each of us would be the decision-maker. We then explicitly agreed that if there were a disagreement, the decision maker would prevail, the other would accept and support 100%, and the decision would be reviewed in the short term to ensure continued alignment. 

There was also a decision to be made regarding titles. Because before Francisco and I met, we knew that we wanted to start a company, and we each thought of ourselves as the CEO. So when it came time to decide for Gordian, I was pretty insistent that I be the CEO, and Francisco tentatively agreed. But then later, he came back and explained why it didn’t make sense because he had more experience with startups in general and CEO duties like fundraising. The biology was also my clear domain. So in the end, we decided that I would be CSO and Francisco would be CEO. 

Finally, we decided that we would each get equal amounts of equity ownership. This was a very intentional decision, and we argued the converse at length. Combined with being precise in decision-making, these conversations set up a lot of goodwill.

Francisco: And I would be clear, I don’t think that going 50-50 on equity is right for all co-founders. But it was right for us.

Martin Borch Jensen and Francisco LePort, 2018
Martin Borch Jensen and Francisco LePort, 2018

We incorporated the company in October 2018, put together the syndicate in November, and closed the seed round at the beginning of February. We immediately started building the team and were off to the races. 

Martin: Our first goal was to conduct a core experiment that would validate our entire technology stack and prove that our approach of testing multiple therapies simultaneously in a single animal to predict what would be successful in human trials was viable end to end. In other words, the experiment would show that if we had had Gordian technology at the time of clinical trials for a certain disease, we would have been able to predict the outcome of those trials with reasonable accuracy. We started with a mouse afflicted with MASH. 

MASH stands for metabolic dysfunction-associated steatohepatitis, which is a type of liver disease affecting several million people in the US alone.

We introduced 25 gene therapies into the mouse, some of which had been through clinical trials, and evaluated the results using our technology platform. In the end, we successfully predicted 13 out of 16 clinical outcomes. This was in early 2021. 

Francisco: We spent the rest of that year raising our Series A funding round, developed our heart failure program, and continued to build out the team that would ultimately run the full-scale discovery screens in large animal Patient Avatars. And here we are today.

Martin: One crucial thing for founders to consider is how you disagree because you’re guaranteed to go through really tough periods and decisions together. Francisco and I have disagreed many times in the past and will certainly continue to have disagreements. But I always know we’re both pursuing the truth and what’s best for the company, not our own egos or need to be right. We both are willing to dig deep and figure out difficult problems together.