CZ Biohub Chicago President Shana Kelley (Credit: Dale Ramos, CZI)

Although Shana Kelley has started four companies, in each case her goal as a founding scientist was to get them set up, hand them off to a CEO, and get out of the way — she had no interest in running a company.

But launching a Biohub, she says, is different. 

“I’m in this for the long haul,” says Kelley, recently named president of the new Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in Chicago. A nonprofit biomedical research institute modeled after the CZ Biohub in San Francisco, the new Chicago Biohub brings together Northwestern University, Kelley’s home institution, with the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to pursue breakthroughs in our understanding of how inflammation contributes to a range of diseases. 

“When you start a company, you’re there to make a product,” she says. “But the Chicago Biohub is about high-impact, high-risk, high-reward science – that’s our product, and it’s a very different kind of product to put together.”

The Chicago Biohub, like the San Francisco Biohub before it, was launched by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to develop game-changing science and technologies to improve medicine and our understanding of human health and disease. Both are part of the CZ Biohub Network.

CZ Biohub Chicago will take an engineering approach to understanding inflammation, and plans to build sensors, fluidic sampling devices, and other types of probes to watch the human immune system in action. “Inflammation is a driver for many diseases – in fact, about half of human deaths are associated with inflammation – but we don’t know enough about its biology,” she says. “Our end goal is to learn how to measure and eventually modulate the immune system so that we can eventually control inflammation.”

An early entrepreneur

Kelley, the Neena B. Schwartz Professor of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern, has been aiming to turn her science discoveries into useful products since she was a grad student. Her first startup, GeneOhm Sciences, created a diagnostic test for antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria. The technology was based on her discovery that DNA mutations could be uncovered by measuring how well DNA strands conduct electricity – a discovery she made in the late 1990s while getting her Ph.D. in chemistry under Jacqueline Barton at the California Institute of Technology. 

Kelley’s second startup, Xagenic, launched in 2009, with the goal of delivering a faster way to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases. The technology employed a single-use cartridge with nanoscale microelectrode sensors, allowing automated electrochemical analysis of the prepared sample on the cartridge. Both companies were later acquired – the first by Becton Dickinson, the second by General Atomics.

What drives her work, Kelley says, is a desire to apply her science to solve human health problems. 

“There are so many important problems that we have to solve just to make our experience as humans better, to alleviate suffering, to lessen the burden of disease,” she says. “I think science is an incredible way to have impact. You can create things that solve those problems, so I am motivated by a mission-driven approach to being a scientist and building organizations to do science.”

Her latest startup, CTRL Therapeutics, which received $10 million in seed funding this spring, is building systems to noninvasively harvest rare cancer-fighting immune cells known as circulating tumor-reactive lymphocytes (cTRLs) from the blood

From America to Canada – and back again

Kelley was not always interested in science. When she was growing up in New Jersey close to New York City, she thought she might go into politics or law, and after high school she did not go to college right away but instead worked in a local bank. “When I went to university, I was enrolled as a business major, but I hated it,” she recalls. “Then I took a chemistry class, and I loved it. It just made sense to me, and it felt very concrete to me. And I knew why it was important.”

After earning her doctorate at Caltech and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Scripps Research Institute, she became a professor of chemistry at Boston College, and then at the University of Toronto, before moving to Northwestern in 2021. Along the way, she’s earned an impressive collection of honors and awards – including election to the Royal Society of Canada, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and recognition as University of Toronto Inventor of the Year.

Her research interests are varied, extending far beyond chemistry to nanotechnology, pharmaceutical science, cancer biology, microfluidics, and more. She has built up a lab at Northwestern that encompasses biology, engineering, and machine learning. 

Shana Kelley and Mike Borja of CZ Biohub San Francisco’s Genomics team visit the Genomics lab. (Credit: Dale Ramos, CZI)

“Shana is an outstanding scientist and a true leader in developing a new generation of diagnostic tools to detect disease,” says her Caltech mentor Barton, now the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry Emerita. “From the very beginning of her career, Shana has shown remarkable creativity, coupled with great scholarship, in coming up with new ways to sensitively probe and detect biomolecules. She combines this with a great sense of people, inspiring young people to join her in developing new chemistry. I’m excited for her and for the new Biohub.”

Kelley and her husband, Ted Sargent, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern, have two teenage sons. When the couple, who met at a nanotechnology conference in California, decided to move from Toronto to Northwestern two years ago, the university marked the occasion with a press release. She describes Sargent as “a rock star – he’s a renewable energy and carbon capture guy, and a really phenomenal scientist-slash-engineer.” 

Their sons love sports and are both taking chemistry this year. “What they want to talk about at the dinner table is chemistry – mainly to tell me that they’re smarter than I am,” she says with a chuckle.

Kelley says she loves the “vibe” of Chicago: “In terms of what’s happening in the life sciences, we’re not where Boston or San Francisco are right now, but there’s a lot of people who want to get there. People are very motivated – there’s no complacency whatsoever, and I love that,” she says. “There’s a huge amount of energy and desire to collaborate and work together and think outside of the box about what we can do differently to build something great. That’s the kind of environment that I personally just thrive in.”