Niamh O’Hara: Taking Biotia from the Bench to the Bedside

by | 2022

Dr. O’Hara is the cofounder and CEO of Biotia, a health tech company located in New York City that leverages sequencing-based technology and proprietary AI-powered software to rapidly and accurately identify microorganisms and antimicrobial resistance. Dr. O’Hara has a PhD in evolutionary biology, with a focus in genomics, and launched Biotia as part of her postdoc work at Cornell Tech, about seven years ago. As she moved into the commercial space she headed up the development and commercialization of cutting-edge genomics technology focused on the microbiome and infectious disease, including a product which received FDA EUA. She has mostly recently led the company through an oversubscribed $8M Series A raise. She was selected as a TedMed Hive Innovator for 2020.


Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the question, “Who ya gonna call?”


Most likely, your memory pops one word into your head—and you’re lucky if a certain comedically catchy song doesn’t immediately follow—and that word is “Ghostbusters.” It’s OK to admit it; the 1984 hit movie was stuck in the zeitgeist.


Changing the scenario to something based squarely in reality. Imagine a group of white-lab-coat-wearing professionals attempting to identify the pathogens causing an infectious disease and how to treat it before things spiral out of control. The answer to “Who ya gonna call?” may be “Dr. Niamh O’Hara.


Among the samples Biotia has processed are specimens taken from subways, broadway shows, pits at the bottom of the ocean, human cadavers, and the International Space Station. The company is even planning for samples that eventually come from Mars. As Biotia cofounder Dr. Christopher Mason says, “From subways to space, we’ve seen it all.”


Suddenly, the “Ghostbusters” comparison doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.


In a world that’s just emerging from one pandemic and seeing new infectious disease outbreaks on the rise, Biotia’s technology and microbial identification mission could be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to predicting, preventing, and treating future health threats, especially with Dr. O’Hara at the helm.


Protecting Humanity from Pandemics

Biotia was born out of the desire of its founders to improve the ability of hospitals to diagnose and treat infectious disease. They were familiar with technology available in their own research experience but weren’t seeing hospitals take advantage of it in a way that benefitted individual patients.


Dr. Mason, who is also a Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. O’Hara, who is also a Research Assistant Professor at SUNY Downstate, met in 2015 at a conference at the New York Genome Center.


“We started brainstorming about ways that we could use genomics in the clinic,” Dr. O’Hara says. “We had both been doing a lot of research in the lab using this technology and talking about ways that we could actually impact patient care with it.”


“We have been really motivated to bridge that gap and bring this technology from the bench to the bedside for treatment,” she adds.


Biotia is solving a real-world problem by working with clinicians and researchers to leverage high-complexity tests and artificial intelligence for rapid-precision infectious-disease discovery. This is designed to help inform patient treatments and improve health outcomes.


“Biotia’s values are really related to our mission, which is fighting infectious diseases powered by genomics and AI while building a leading microbial sequence database,” Dr. O’Hara says. “So our values are centered on improving patient care and protecting humanity from pandemics.” 


Pretty heavy stuff—especially considering people around the world are dipping their toes in the waters of a post-COVID world, and no one is really sure what will come next. But don’t worry: Biotia is already working on that.


“Biotia’s values are really related to our mission, which is fighting infectious diseases powered by genomics and AI while building a leading microbial sequence database,”

In August, it was announced that Biotia and its partner Twist Bioscience, a San Francisco-based company specializing in high-quality synthetic DNA, had received expanded emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA for the SARS-Cov-2 Next Generation Sequencing Assay for the qualitative detection, identification, and differentiation of COVID lineages and specific genomic mutations. Basically, that means Biotia is on the case for identifying future COVID variants.


“Our long-term vision for Biotia is bringing precision medicine to infectious disease diagnostics,” Dr. O’Hara says. “When we think about how we diagnose and treat patients, we want to do this at the individualized level. We have also built a data hub where we can surveil for pathogens and bring this kind of technology to the community—identifying novel emerging threats and actually prevent pandemics before they occur.”



Emerging Infectious Disease Threats

The 21st century has seen a rash of severe infectious disease outbreaks, including swine flu, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19. Dr. O’Hara attributes this increased threat of infectious disease to a number of factors including climate change, increased global travel, and deforestation.


“You have more transmission from animal populations into human populations, and more transmission between humans,” Dr. O’Hara says. “At Biotia, we are building technology that allows us to track these patterns.”


While infectious disease risks are trending up, the primary technology used to fight them has remained static. Current diagnostic tools include culturing, a process first developed in the 1800s, but still viewed as the gold standard. The practice involves taking a sample, growing it in a petri dish, and looking through a microscope to identify pathogens. This process remains slow, as you have to wait for the microorganisms to grow, and less than 10 percent of species can actually be cultured.


“The result is 18 million diagnostic errors annually, extensive patient suffering, and death related to infectious disease,” Dr. O’Hara says. “So what we’re doing is using a genomic-based approach and AI software where we can identify the full microbial profile in a sample. We have 10,000 microbial species in the database, so we don’t have to design the assay ahead of time to know what we’re looking for. We can actually find anything in the massive database in the sample.”


Another advantage to Biotia’s genomic-based technology is that the turnaround time  is extremely quick. “It takes less than a day to find the full microbial profile and drug-resistant markers,” she says, “which can then used to guide clinician treatment of the patient.” 


Creating a Positive Work Culture

Speaking of cultures, Dr. O’Hara and her management team are constantly striving to maintain a positive one at Biotia. She says the company tends to attract people who already display an affinity to the core mission: saving patient lives.


According to Dr. O’Hara, the company does a number of things to build team camaraderie and maintain a positive and energetic work environment.


“One is keeping the mission at the center, so we are always going back to why we are doing this,” she says. “We also have all-hands strategy sessions with the whole team every month where we develop strategies, goals, and key performance indicators together. So we’re really all aligned, and we know why we’re doing this and why we’re here. We’ve also just recently launched wellness sessions, so we bring in external parties to help us with training on, for example, mindfulness or how to avoid burnout—things like that. We also just go out to dinner. Sometimes that helps.”


Biotia has an active program in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. The company takes great care to write and post job listings in a way that appeals to a diverse pool of applicants. Other steps include team conversations and DEI trainings and offering a holiday schedule that is more inclusive of different cultures and beliefs.


Cofounder Dr. Mason says Biotia is blessed to have such a fantastic CEO in Dr. O’Hara.


“Niamh really brings the best out of people and nurtures them to be their best scientist, their best programmer, and their best organizer. She really gets people to work with passion, and she inspires people,” Dr. Mason says. “She’s also very supportive. If you need something for your family, you need something for the lab, or you need a day to just look at the clouds and come back the next day—anything you need to know you’re working at your best, she’s fully supportive. It’s nice to know that anything you need or you need to make sure you get done, she’s fully behind you and has your back. That’s a priceless value to have at a company.”


Day-to-Day Demands 

When she’s not working to prevent the next pandemic, Dr. O’Hara hangs out with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and the family dog, Huckleberry. The family has a cabin in the Catskills and enjoys getting away for canoeing, hiking, reading, and just general relaxing. Dr. O’Hara and her family actually lived in the cabin for about six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and she was able to secure back-country wi-fi to work from there.


After the early morning rush of getting her daughter to school, Dr. O’Hara can be found handling the day-to-day demands of Biotia as well as working with customers on partnerships and additional big-picture strategy for the company. Partnerships include work with the Mayo Clinic, Twist Bioscience, and NASA among others.


Dr. O’Hara cites listening as one of the most important traits a leader can possess—whether it comes to working with employees or exploring strategic business partnerships with other companies. Creating those deals will be key to helping Biotia meet its long-term vision.


“We really want to make this technology more available to patients by bringing it to every hospital across the world,” Dr. O’Hara says.

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