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How Stefan Roberts and inSoma Bio are upgrading fat grafting with Duke technology and support

Stefan Roberts stands in a white coat framed through a lab shelf with equipment, looking down at container he’s holding. Overlayed is a blue gradient with light teal abstract thin network graphic and the inSoma Bio logo.

by Fedor Kossakovski

Stefan Roberts found a passion for biomedical research early in life and kept at it through his time at Duke University, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering in 2018.

Now, with support from Duke, he is growing a local start-up called inSoma Bio – developing biomaterials Roberts cooked up in the lab with his P.I., the Alan L. Kaganov Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering Ashutosh Chilkoti.

Roberts and the inSoma Bio team are first tackling the breast reconstruction space, using their technology to give mastectomy and lumpectomy patients a more natural reconstruction with their own tissue.

But this important application is just the beginning of how Roberts hopes inSoma Bio’s technology will improve patient and surgeon experiences.

Nurturing a sense of discovery

Like many kids, Roberts wanted to be an archaeologist or a deep-sea marine biologist when he was little.

“Opening untouched mysteries, being the first one to see something in recordable history – maybe that’s the bug that I got,” he says, seated in his office in The Chesterfield, an old cigarette-factory-turned-tech-incubator building in downtown Durham.

Stefan Roberts stands smiling in front of a blurry background of an airy multifloor office atrium.
Stefan Roberts at the inSoma Bio facilities in The Chesterfield building in downtown Durham. Credit: Stefan Roberts/Fedor Kossakovski/Duke OTC.

Growing up in Memphis, Roberts’ father brought him along to medical sales pitches for radiation oncology instruments – “which, in hindsight, was probably very good exposure” – and Roberts got interested in the basic research conducted at his hometown institution, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“I had a very substantial mentor at St. Jude who was willing to take me on during the last summers of high school,” Stefan says. “He taught me the value of the technology behind much of the healthcare system.”

With a newfound direction, Roberts started his undergraduate studies in Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) but, with summer looming, his thoughts drifted back to Memphis and St. Jude.

With his previous mentor not able to take on students the following summer and no other position lined up, Roberts decided to call the COO of the premier research hospital. Every week. For three months. Finally, he got someone on the line and finagled a summer research position.

“I didn’t know that wasn’t a normal thing to do. I think they were just tired of getting my voicemails,” Roberts chuckles.

Those college summers, Roberts worked on the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, gaining valuable research skills and a highly cited publication in Nature.

Back at WUSTL, Roberts also did research, developing metallic nanoparticles and working in a lab at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the university’s affiliated teaching hospital, whipping up nanoparticles to target specific cancers.

Getting so much hands-on research experience in undergrad convinced Roberts he wanted to dive right into lab research in grad school… and that meant coming to Duke.

Pushing the boundaries of biomaterials

“I liked that I wasn’t going to a general grad school program, I was going to a specific lab to focus on a specific research project that I was interested in,” Roberts remembers.

The Duke University Pratt School of Engineering’s Ph.D. program in Biomedical Engineering pairs incoming graduate students with labs right away, and Roberts was keen on the research being conducted in the lab of Professor Ashutosh Chilkoti.

“I remember Stefan as an unusually focused and driven young man when I interviewed him for graduate school,” Chilkoti says. “He continued to set a torrid pace in my lab in his PhD — he was driven and fearless. He was famous for putting on oversized headphones in the lab to block out all external noise so that he could focus on his experiments.”

Roberts was doing some exploratory work in the lab when he stumbled upon some protein polymer networks that piqued his interest.

“If you want to pinpoint the origin of inSoma, it was an afternoon where I decided to fluorescently label my proteins and look at them under a microscope,” Roberts says. “That was kind of an ‘Aha!’ moment: these are creating something totally unique to synthetic polymers – this microstructure is very reminiscent of actual elastin networks.”

Elastin is a protein polymer the body produces to add elasticity to tissue and organs like blood vessels and lungs. Roberts explains elastin as an opposite to collagen, which is a more well-known protein that provides structure and stiffness to tissue.

Elastin defies the “structure equals function” dogma of proteins you may remember from high school biology. It’s what’s called an intrinsically disordered protein: chains of amino acids that don’t have a set folded shape designed like a key for a specific lock. Instead, a more variable orientation of states allows these types of proteins to be more adaptable to different conditions, often conveying unique properties — in this case, a temperature-mediated switch from liquid to an elastic solid.

Roberts sits in a white coat at a fume hood, handling a pipette with blue gloves. In the foreground hang strips of clear divider plastic.
Roberts and inSoma Bio have received support from Duke as they spun out, including access to discounted lab space. Stefan Roberts/Fedor Kossakovski/Duke OTC.

The Chilkoti lab is renowned for its work in this space, investigating disordered proteins and their applications using a platform called elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs).

“ELPs are enormously plastic — we can design them at the molecular level to endow them with a dizzying array of properties that are relevant to the biotech, biopharma, and biomaterials fields,” Chilkoti says. “PhaseBio (drug delivery), Isolere Bio (bioprocessing), and now inSoma Bio (regenerative medicine) are examples of companies that were created from the different flavors of ELPs designed in my lab. As long as we continue to identify useful applications for the new ELPs that we design, we will continue to explore their commercial potential.”

“All the research had been focused on the disordered components of elastin that gave it its thermal transition properties,” Roberts says, but now he was staring through his microscope at something that not only moved from liquid to solid and back like elastin but actually knit itself together in a similar networked pattern. “You can think of it as the absolute minimal version of what human elastin is.”

Focusing in on an application

Roberts recognized that having an interesting new technology in itself wasn’t enough to build a business – it had to be paired with solving a compelling customer need.

Thankfully, working at Duke means having access to a community of world-class researchers and clinicians who are willing to lend their expertise to colleagues. Roberts and Chilkoti met with physicians and surgeons who regaled them with different issues their technology might help solve.

Just as the excitement was ramping up, Roberts defended his thesis and graduated from his Ph.D. program. With a good idea but still plenty of development needed, the initiative may have easily fizzled out if it weren’t for the Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship Program (DEEP), which offers money and resources to a BME Ph.D. graduate for what is effectively one year of an entrepreneurial postdoc.

“Duke gave me the rare opportunity to explore funding for our new venture while still under University support,” Roberts says. “In that time, we found our third co-founder, Scott Hollenbeck. He was Director of Breast Reconstruction at Duke at the time, and it took him all of three minutes of looking at our material to say: ‘My field has a huge problem. I think this can solve it.’ He joined our team a few weeks later.”

Together, the trio founded inSoma Bio, with the target indication of improving fat grafting for reconstructive breast surgeries. Basically, the problem Hollenbeck brought to the table was wanting to reinject liposuctioned fat to reconstruct breasts of mastectomy and lumpectomy patients for a more natural approach than silicone implants, but the liposuction process blends up the fat and breaks down its elastin-supported structure.

“Plastic surgeons have spent decades chasing down an effective way to fill defects caused by cancer, trauma, birth defects or the aging process,” explains Dr. Scott Hollenbeck, now chair of UVA Health’s Department of Plastic and Maxillofacial Surgery. “Many of the current approaches use synthetic materials or require large cuts to transfer tissue from one area to another. Fat grafting involves liposuction and syringes, but its full potential for rebuilding tissue has not been realized.” 

The material Roberts and team are developing provides an elegant solution. The elastin-based polymer, now called FractomerTM, is mixed with liposuctioned fat. At room temperature, the mixture is still liquid. After it is reinjected into the body, Fractomer undergoes a thermal transition from liquid to solid, weaving the fat through with an elastin-like network.

Not only does this create a moldable, more natural reconstruction using a patient’s own tissue, but the network also allows natural vascularization and, hence, better integration back into the body.

This new option is attractive to surgeons and patients alike.

“With FractomerTM, we are getting close to having what amounts to a biologic putty that surgeons can inject and then hand craft into defect-conforming shapes,” Hollenbeck says. “To me, this is a game changer for patients.”

“I don’t think I’ve talked to a single patient who’s undergone breast reconstruction that hasn’t said: ‘I wish this had been an option for me,’” Roberts says.

Launching with the Duke community

inSoma Bio is growing, integrating into the Duke and Durham entrepreneurial networks.

As part of DEEP, Roberts and inSoma Bio received space and support at the BRiDGE, a startup incubator for Duke companies. They’ve been working alongside other Duke startups in the Chesterfield building in downtown Durham since 2019.

The team also received funding from the Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership, which “supports collaborative translational research projects that involve co-investigators from Duke Biomedical Engineering and the clinical departments of Duke Health.”

Roberts holds up a small vial to the camera. Behind, a lab office wall has bolted posters of company logos.
Roberts shows off a vial of inSoma Bio’s FractomerTM in front of logos of other Duke spinouts incubating at BRiDGE. Credit: Stefan Roberts/Fedor Kossakovski/Duke OTC.

Interfacing with the Duke University Office for Translation & Commercialization was smooth and helpful. “Duke and inSoma’s interests have always been aligned toward creating a successful company,” Roberts says. “I’ve heard many horror stories from other entrepreneurs negotiating their first licensing deals, but Robin Rasor said simply: ‘We want you to be successful, tell us what you need to make that happen.’”

“Helping a new company with valuable technology get off the ground and watching one of our graduates become a successful early-stage CEO is especially gratifying,” says Rasor, Associate VP for Translation & Commercialization. “Stefan and other DEEP graduates and Duke Entrepreneurial Leaders Network members are the future for much needed startup management in the Triangle.” 

Capital and experienced talent are two crucial ingredients for any start-ups aiming to commercialize scientific advancements – and Duke Capital Partners (DCP) provides both. Duke University’s official early-stage venture investment arm was – and continues to be – inSoma Bio’s largest investor, across pre-seed and seed rounds.

“We are committed to supporting our portfolio companies as they tackle the world’s most pressing challenges,” says Kurt Schmidt, Managing Director of Duke Capital Partners. “inSoma Bio stands as a prime example of Duke Capital Partner’s mission in action: our goal is to support Duke faculty spinouts and bring their innovations from the laboratory to the marketplace, where they can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

“They have been incredibly supportive,” Roberts says. “DCP helped us identify our first independent director, June Almenoff. She has been a fantastic addition, and we’re thankful for that introduction and many more over the years which we would not have had without our support from DCP.”

“I serve on the board of inSoma, which is in the DCP portfolio, and have been privileged to get to know the founders,” Almenoff says. “Brilliant scientists, great communicators and really accomplished at translating their technologies. A key focus of inSoma is women’s health – better surgical reconstructive solutions for women with breast cancer.”

inSoma Bio picked up its first federal research grant in 2019 and went through the Y Combinator accelerator program in 2020. In the last two years, the company received its two largest federal research grants to date: over $2 million from the National Cancer Institute for reconstructive breast surgery and another $1 million from the National Science Foundation to develop the technology’s for facial reconstruction.

“These grants provide valuable non-dilutive capital and third-party validation of the importance and quality of the work my team is doing,” Roberts says.

Growing into the future

Next up for Roberts and inSoma Bio is continuing to develop the business in the reconstructive breast surgery market while exploring other indications, like facial reconstruction.

“At the end of the day, we have a unique material that is injectable, helps support new tissue growth, and supports natural blood vessel growth,” Roberts says. “This is an enormously useful platform that can have an impact in a number of different areas of soft tissue engineering, whether it’s recreating skin, healing wounds, filling in defects, or even certain aesthetic applications for synthetic elastin.”

“My hope is that inSoma is a great success,” Chilkoti says, “that it takes FractomerTM all the way through clinical trials and into the clinic with one or more products that help those in need, and that somewhere on this journey there is an exit that rewards all the people who have put in blood, sweat, toil and tears into inSoma.”

Almost a decade into this journey from academia to industry, Roberts has picked up some lessons that are useful for fellow entrepreneurial researchers.

“My very first introductory slide deck was ten slides of science to two commercialization slides,” Roberts says. “Now, it’s basically flipped.”

It’s important to adjust your pitch to the audience: a group of scientists at a research conference would be interested in the detailed science behind the technology, but a room of potential investors would want you to focus on the business proposition.

“Quality science is a core backbone of our company, but good science alone doesn’t make a good company,” Roberts says.

“We also wouldn’t be having this conversation without the incredible support and hard work of my team,” Roberts says. “They really are an incredible group of people with a passion for pushing this company and technology to the next level.”

Finally, Roberts suggests, focus on the here and now.

“Nobody cares what you could do,” Roberts implores, “they care what you can do.”

Learn more about innovation support and investment provided by Duke’s Office for Translation & Commercialization and Duke Capital Partners.