BHCC President Eddinger Interviews Interviews CEO/Co-Founder of XenoTherapeutics and BHCC Alumnus Paul Holzer
As part of an occasional series of conversations with local, national and business leaders about issues and trends in community college education, President Eddinger sits down with BHCC alumnus and trustee Paul Holzer to trace his journey from Navy Seal to scientist, engineer and entrepreneur.
Paul Holzer studied genetics at BHCC from 2010 to 2012. His company XenoTherapeutics received FDA clearance this month for an innovative transplantation mechanism that responds to the urgent shortage of organs and tissue transplantation worldwide.
President Pam Eddinger (PE): Paul, we’re so pleased that the Governor has appointed you to our Board of Trustees. Thinking back to when you were a student here, what surprises you most about our students now?
Paul Holzer (PH): Walking through the halls is like stepping back in time. In 2009, I needed to take science courses to meet the application requirements for medical school. When I walked across the threshold of the Veterans Center, I shook hands with Steven Roy, the same person that I met there tonight. He helped me fill out the paperwork and welcomed me to post-military academic life.
PE: Did the courses here at a community college meet your expectations?
PH: I am excited to talk about the rigor of the courses and what they did for me. What surprises me is that my experiences ring true today. The students I saw today are like me. It was like being in a time capsule. I was post-military career, just about to turn 30 years old. It’s nice to be part of this amalgam, whether it was my labmate who was studying for her second career or a mom with two kids taking evening courses. It’s either the next chapter in their story, or it’s their first chapter. That is why I like being a trustee here now: to support the mission of the College and to bear witness to the diversity of the students we serve.
PE: We do have an inclusive student body, rich with lived experiences. If you had to give advice to health science or engineering students now, what would you tell them?
PH: I would say finish! There will be times when you’re the only person who is pushing yourself. You’ll have support along the way, but the reason and your will to continue what you’re doing have to come from you. In the SEALs team and in our company, there are really three keys to success: one, show up; two, work hard; and three, listen. That means adapt, grow and sometimes, accept the things you can’t do, but you still need to finish.
CLINICAL TRIALS FOR XENO-SKIN™ On December 7, Paul Holzer’s firm XenoTherapeutics, announced clearance by the FDA for it’s first-in-human clinical trial of Xeno-Skin™, the culmination of years of research to address a critically unmet need for patients with severe burn wounds.
PE: I want to go back up a bit and trace your impressive journey. Take me from when you graduated from high school.
PH: I grew up on the Florida Panhandle. I didn’t desire to go to college right away. I wanted to go out and see the world. I wanted to make an impact. Restless, I found myself in the U.S. Navy. A mentor there advised me to go to college, and in 2003, I graduated from the University of Florida.
In my junior year, our country went through 9/11. I felt a desire to try out for an elite team, the Navy SEALs. I had not trained to the level of the other candidates. There was a hill that you had to run up and down as part of the trial for an officer candidate. I wasn’t as competitive, but I thought the one advantage I have is gravity, so I literally started jumping down the mountain.
PE: I bet that made them notice you.
PH: Oh, they saw me. I was told that it wasn’t that I was first, but that I had a “reckless abandon for things that mattered.”
PE: Where did you go after the University of Florida?
PH: The Navy SEALs was challenging, but I wanted to challenge myself with graduate school. I applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but was rejected. A lot of qualified applicants are not admitted the first time, but persistence counts. Showing up, working hard and listening mattered. The next year, I met MIT Professor John Leonard, who encouraged me to apply again. In 2009 I was accepted.
PE: Where does Bunker Hill Community College fit into your journey?
PH: There is no way I would have gotten into medical school at the right timeframe and arrived at where I am today without Bunker Hill Community College. As a graduate student and research fellow at MIT, I would take night classes at BHCC to fulfill the medical school pre-requisites. People would tell me there’s no way a person could take that many courses, but I had a mission.
I had to get it done, and I was able to complete it faster by coming to BHCC.
I think often about BHCC Professors Paul Kasili and Karen Atkinson. Of all the courses I’ve taken, their teaching style and commitment to their students are outstanding. They made sure that I knew the material. I apply things I learned from those courses even today.
PE: This is a good pivot to talk about starting your own company, XenoTherapeutics. You co-founded this company to respond to the shortage of transplant tissues, and exciting times are coming. Please share the story.
PH: In May, the New England Business Association graciously granted XenoTherapeutics the 2018 Innovation Award. We have developed the first non-human organ transplant cleared by the FDA for investigative use. We are a nonprofit, and our goal is to start small to demonstrate safety with patients with life-threatening conditions. We’ve just received permission from the FDA to start this process, and we’ll be enrolling patients before the end of the 2018.
PE: After your trial is cleared by the FDA and say ten years down the line, what will this project look like then? Who will be healthier or have a second chance?
PH: We’re not creating a single solution, we’re building a platform for a field of medicine that has demonstrated promising outcomes. I am not the first person looking to cure disease by transplantation from non-human sources, but we’re looking beyond the transplant to the mechanisms by which it is done. My hope is much greater than a single product or industry. I’m looking for other problems my team can solve.
PE: That is a singular vision of great magnitude.
PH: We Navy SEALs are problem solvers.
PE: It seems the desire to solve problems is ubiquitous in your life and work. I understand you traveled back to the Florida Panhandle in October in the wake of Hurricane Michael to help with the relief effort.
PH: I was watching from my living room here in Massachusetts, and the graphic on the weather station was literally moving across the backyard of my parent’s house. To say it was surreal would be an understatement. I knew I had to go.
I called five of my closest friends. We drove for 23 hours and were given the clearance to deliver humanitarian support. We were some of the first helpers on the scene, and worked hand-in-hand with local police and rescuers. We cut through downed trees and storm debris and entered really remote areas of the Panhandle. There was no mobile phone service and entire areas were limited in resources, but the relief work was something that needed to be done.
PE: So, Paul, many of our students are like you when you were a student. They are looking for a different path, reaching for a better future. As Trustee, what role do you wish to play in this work?
Recognized as a Military Friendly® School, BHCC is committed to providing veterans, active duty military, Guard/Reservists and their eligible dependents with a smooth transition to college and a successful education. BHCC’s Veterans Center, featured below, serves as an advocate within the college community, providing resources and assistance with community partners. For more information, visit bhcc.edu/veterans.
PH: Bunker Hill Community College met my energy and commitment. They were an equal partner in my success. Community college is like a first date for many people. Without the resources, talents and ambassadors you could turn off students who otherwise would flourish and add value. It may come down to just a single positive interaction. So I take my trustee role seriously, and serve with rigor. It’s a responsibility and an honor.
PE: You’re running a company that innovates with a social conscience, leveraging all your education and your lived experiences. I couldn’t make up a better story to show our students that, like you, their potential is endless.
PH: When you’re looking for a new compass in life, it always comes back to how you can do something that will impact others.
PE: You’ve inspired me. Who inspires you?
PH: I’m inspired by people who are willing to try things that make them uncomfortable. Even if it doesn’t work, they know they are headed in the right direction. They’re trying to improve themselves, or help others and the community. It takes a lot to step out of that comfort zone. The outcome is less important than the effort and justification for it. I try to be one of those people.