Science is a Puzzle: Selux Diagnostics Director of Research and Development Kelly Flentie On Collaboration, Idea Diversity, and Solving One of the Biggest Medical Problems of Our Time

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Selux Diagnostics

Microbiology, engineering, software development, and data science are seemingly independent disciplines, but what would happen if experts from each field gathered every day to share ideas and problem solve together? Could they solve some of the most challenging medical puzzles of our time?

Selux Diagnostics believes the answer is a resounding yes, and for the last seven years, the Boston-based startup has assembled a team of top scientists and engineers across disciplines to transform infectious disease treatment and fight the antibiotic resistance crisis before it’s too late.

It’s a cross-functional environment, one where no question is too dumb, and no idea is too small. For Kelly Flentie, PhD., Director of Research and Development at Selux, it’s exactly the sort of place where she can do her best and arguably most important work.

Flentie joined Selux back when there were only seven people there. A passionate scholar of microbiology, her early career experiences showed her firsthand how cross-sector collaboration leads to diversity of thinking in a lab. As leader of the microbiology team at Selux, she’s since watched the organization innovate in real time from its early-stage startup days through the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.

MassTLC spoke with Flentie about what it’s like working on a cross-functional team, her love of science as a discipline, and what’s next for Selux.

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Tell me more about Selux Diagnostics. What is the company’s mission?

Selux Diagnostics is a startup company that aims to design solutions for clinical microbiology and infectious disease diagnostics. We’ve been around for seven years. Our mission is to determine personalized therapies for antimicrobial infections and to improve infectious disease care to combat the antimicrobial resistance epidemic.

Right now, the current standard of care can take about three days to get a targeted antimicrobial treatment to an individual if they have an infection, and during this entire time that individual is on non-optimal, non-targeted antimicrobial therapy. Sometimes it doesn’t even work, sometimes it’s just not the ideal therapy for that individual. This drives the antimicrobial resistance crisis that we find ourselves in. Selux is trying to design and provide users with a rapid AST or antimicrobial susceptibility test with a large menu that will shorten the time to get patients on to targeted therapies. We really believe that this will improve both patient care and infectious disease treatment on an individual level, while helping to preserve antimicrobial therapies and combating the antibiotic resistance crisis for future generations.

What is your role and the role of the microbiology team in making that happen? What does that look like day to day?

I lead the microbiology team. We have a team of dedicated scientists that have come together to create our system, and we actively collaborate with the engineering, software, and data science teams to drive the work on the product.

AST technology is pretty tricky; it’s difficult to design a test that can accurately and rapidly determine the correct antimicrobial for a sample. A lot of what the microbiology team does is strategize the testing that we need to do to be able to make a system that can provide the right answer for all the different samples that it could encounter clinically. We strategize what that testing looks like, design the testing, perform the testing, and work with the engineers and the other folks at Selux to get that side of things done. On top of that, we interface a lot with the engineering team to troubleshoot the technology and to work on improvements for the technology going forward, and we also serve as proxy users. The microbiology team is the first set of users, so we interface with the engineering team to help them understand how a user might interact physically with the device and with the software teams to understand how a user would interact with results.

We have a team of about eight people that are full-time in the lab working on the systems. In order to develop the system in a way that it can be effective against a wide variety of organisms with a wide variety of responses to antimicrobials, we have to make sure we test all those organisms in the lab first. There is a lot of testing in the lab. Anytime we see something where we think, “Oh, that’s not what we expected,” then that’s when we dig in and bounce ideas back and forth to try and figure out what we’re going to do to figure out what happened.

Were you always excited about microbiology? What set you off on the career path that you ultimately pursued?

I was always interested in microbiology and infectious disease research. I went to the University of Kansas for undergrad, and I was lucky there that I got connected with a research lab run by a professor and his wife together. I spent my sophomore through senior year in that lab. I would be there full-time in the summers, and I would be there part-time during the school year, but I was consistently in that lab for three years, and that was a really good opportunity. I participated in lab meetings, and I was able to go to conferences and present my research. It was exciting, and I loved it. I knew from that point that I wanted to go to graduate school, and I went to study at Washington University in St. Louis, which is a great school for microbiology research.

When you do your PhD. research, you usually spend a lot of time in the one lab that you’re doing your research in, which can be 5, 6, 7 years. I ended up in a lab that was actually outside of the microbiology department, so I was doing microbiology research, but I was doing that research in a lab that was in the radiology department. It sounds kind of weird, but we were doing a lot with imaging techniques – different types of ways to look at biological systems, different ways to look at bacteria and how bacteria interact with host cells, for example. In that lab, I worked with folks who were chemists, biochemists, and radiologists to answer microbiology questions. That was my first taste of this cross-functional environment that I now find myself in at Selux.

Typically, a graduate student would stay in a department and be surrounded with people that are generally experts in exactly what they’re doing, but I surrounded myself with a variety of experts from different fields, so my research experience during my PhD. was a pretty dynamic cross-functional research experience.

It sounds like early on, you had a lot of autonomy to explore and dig into different things that interested you. What sparked your transition to the tech sector? What vision did you have for how your expertise could make a difference here?

After my PhD., I stayed on at WashU, joined a different lab, and did my postdoctoral research. During that time, I got involved in a nonprofit organization at the university that allows graduate students and postdocs to do small consulting projects with companies, a lot of startup companies, but also larger companies. It was a window into what it looks like to develop a product on the science side and to be a part of that experience. Working with various startup companies, I could leverage my scientific training and interest in infectious disease research to be a part of developing a product that’s going to market.

That experience is what targeted my search to startup companies. We were coming to Boston because my husband had already gotten a job here, but luckily for me, I wanted to join a science biotech startup company, and Boston is pretty much the best city in the world to go to for that. I joined Selux when there were about seven people there. From the start, it was exciting to be able to work with a diverse team of people to build Selux into what it is now.

Why Selux? What attracted you at first?

From the time I joined the Selux, it was a diverse set of people, and I could see that I was going to be involved in those cross-functional, diverse sets of brainstorming sessions from the beginning. I was really excited about that, and that was what drew me to Selux.

The company is so focused on doing the right thing and making a difference in the clinical microbiology, infectious disease space; everyone clearly wants to provide a useful product for people in a way that improves patient care and improves the issues that people see clinically while attacking antimicrobial resistance.

Like you said, the team at Selux is made up of experts from a variety of different fields. What is it actually like working in this type of cross-functional environment? Can you share an example of a problem that was solved in a non-traditional way?

Broad day-to-day, it’s a lot of meetings where we all talk about things in our own language and make sure everyone understands it. Microbiology, engineering, and software all come to the same meeting, we set a specific goal, and we talk about what that goal looks like from our side and figure out what we’re trying to do together.

We had a specific type of organism that in our system was difficult to detect resistance for during the rapid timeframe of our tests. We were getting the answer wrong, because we were trying to get the answer within this short, five-hour timeframe, and it just wasn’t showing its true colors yet. What we ultimately did was bring our heads together to find a solution that combined information from microbiology as well as information from engineering. It was a lot of back and forth — “Can you do this? Yes, we can do that.” Once we came up with a prototype test together, we ran a whole bunch of samples to make sure that it worked. We interfaced with data science and with the software team to make sure that we were getting and able to analyze all that information we needed. In short, we all came together, and we developed an offshoot that worked. Now it’s a feature of the system that helps us predict these tricky organisms.

You mentioned the idea of each group speaking in “their own language.” What techniques do you have in place to facilitate translation between groups? It sounds like you have very open communication. How do you foster that and keep everyone learning from each other?

Honestly, it’s so cliché, but the experience I’ve had at Selux since day one is that there’s no stupid question. Everyone respects everyone to such a high degree that if I have some silly question about how some piece of engineering works, everyone is willing to sit down and take the time and explain that to me. And it’s the same on the other side. We all come from very diverse backgrounds, and we all know that there is a big knowledge gap in between what I know and what a software engineer knows. It’s respecting everyone and taking the time to thoroughly put the communication together, so that everyone feels like they’re on the same page going forward.

We’re all here in the same space, and we generally like each other and have a good time. You’ll often see people having a beer after work and talking about science problems. People are interested in what everyone is working on.

How has Selux as an organization evolved and adapted since the outbreak of the pandemic? Did the pandemic change the company’s focus at all?

The pandemic changed everything, and for us it made us feel that we’re on the right track. The pandemic unearthed and accelerated the antimicrobial resistance crisis in a way that was potentially unexpected. There have been quite a few high-profile publications lately about the global burden and the burden in the U.S. of antimicrobial resistance. The pandemic has just made it worse. Hospitals have been stressed, and crowded and that has acted as an accelerant for the antimicrobial resistance crisis. We’ve been lucky for a long time to have antibiotics that work really well, and it’s important to preserve them for the future. We hope we can be part of that and we think it’s more important now than ever.

“We’ve been lucky for a long time to have antibiotics that work really well, and it’s important to preserve them for the future. We hope we can be part of that and we think it’s more important now than ever.”

Tell me more about Selux’s antimicrobial susceptibility testing platform. What was the role of the microbiology team in developing it? What’s next for Selux?

Selux’s initial system, the target of our first clinical trial, involved testing for susceptibility from bacterial isolates on Petri plates. Since then, we have moved on to working on developing our system testing samples from blood culture systems. With this second technology, Selux is working to help some of the most ill patients in the hospital. These are people who are suspected of having bacterial infections in their blood stream. Typically, after a blood culture sample tests positive,those samples have to grow on a Petri plate overnight before you can even start to perform susceptibility testing on them. Selux’s next system and program has been to develop an AST diagnostic, straight from positive blood culture, so it cuts out that full 24-hour window. That’s what the team has been working very hard on. It’s the first time that a system will be able to produce susceptibility testing diagnostic results from both bacteria as isolates as well as from these positive blood culture samples.

Our team has been working on designing the testing and creating a strategy around exactly the testing that needs to be done, the samples that need to be collected, and how to make sure that the system that we’re about to go to a clinical trial with is capable of doing everything that we expect it to do.

You have such an inspiring career. What keeps exciting you about science? What advice would you give to parents and teachers who want to encourage young people to experiment with science and technology?

Science is a puzzle. You’re trying to understand something that isn’t yet understood in some way or another. It’s the quest for knowledge. It’s such a fascinating process. I absolutely love the idea of answering questions for myself. I love the process of working with other people to iterate and come back with what knowledge we’ve gained, and then see what direction that guides us in.

In the younger school years, classes aren’t necessarily teaching how to do science, they’re teaching about science. You’re learning information about bacteria, for example, but you’re not trying to discover anything new about bacteria. The sooner kids can get involved in understanding if they like to ask questions, to follow a lead and figure out what’s going on in some sort of system in the natural world, the better.

I think of science as a discipline. For any career in science, you might come across hurdles that could be discouraging, and the way to overcome them is to think about things in a different way. It’s just like when you’re trying to solve a problem in science; to understand all the information you have available, you need to understand all the avenues you have to answer that question. That is the same way to think about a potential career roadblock. You need to find the opportunities available to get past the hurdle that’s in your way.

“Science is a puzzle. You’re trying to understand something that isn’t yet understood in some way or another. It’s the quest for knowledge.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

One of the best parts about being a part of Selux is that I was able to come in on the ground floor and help develop this product, this system, and to see how all the inputs led to where we ended up today. I’ve seen how market research and information from key opinion leaders and potential users have influenced the system, the regulatory landscape, the technical requirements — seeing how all those things come together to develop something is what I hoped I would get when I joined a startup, and I have absolutely found that here at Selux.

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