Becoming a jazz guitarist starts with a soul-catching chord. That initial spark of inspiration is followed by hours of practice to learn scales and complex harmonies, decades of determination to build the necessary musical mind and rhythmic vocabulary.
But if a performer has put in the work — if, in the words of jazz trumpeter Chris Griffin, a “brave musician takes control of space and time” — the music appears effortless, improvised notes constantly unfurling. For guitarist-turned-entrepreneur Issi Rozen, that demanding and layered process is a lot like building a biotech company.
“It’s a lot of work, and it requires a really intense amount of dedication and passion,” he says. But the success of offering a life-saving drug to a patient feels immensely rewarding.
It’s this potential to impact human health that drew Rozen, now a general partner at Google Ventures, off the stage and into the biomedical arena. His track record of mixing passion and dedication in equal proportions has also brought him to the Institute for Protein Innovation, where he now sits as a member of the Board of Directors.
Finding the rhythm
Musical inspiration struck Rozen young. At 10 years old, growing up in Israel, he watched a guitar program on television and quickly became obsessed. He asked his father for his first instrument, began playing rock and blues in Tel Aviv nightclubs, and fell in love with jazz — with John Coltrane’s passion and Wes Montgomery’s melodic purity and Jimi Hendrix’s creative energy.
After serving a mandated three years in the Israeli Defense Force and attending the Rimon School of Music in Tel Aviv, he moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. In 1998, he released his first recording, “Red Sea,” which was quickly followed by an intricate sophomore album, “Homeland Blues,” named one of the top 20 CDs of 2000 by WBEZ radio. Riding this success, he took a faculty position at Berklee in 2002 to teach guitar and music theory.
The turn of the century was a pivotal moment in the music industry, marking the start of a new digital age where music could be distributed instantly. Rozen saw change coming and founded his first company, New Step Music, to help guide music onto these emerging online platforms. But to convince record companies that MP3s were the future of music and worth the investment, Rozen quickly realized he needed an MBA.
He enrolled in the MIT Sloan School of Management but, three weeks into the term, he fell upon a “powerful” presentation that changed his life. The talk detailed how Genzyme brought its first drug to market. Rozen considered the impact a single drug could have on those diagnosed with life-altering diseases and was immediately enthralled by the improbable economics of biotechnology: How could investors navigate dead-end leads and sky-high costs with no definitive guarantee of return?
“I thought that was such a remarkable, interesting business question,” he says.
He quickly saturated his schedule with biotech classes, sometimes zigzagging across the Charles River daily to balance teaching at Berklee and learning at MIT. The following summer, he scored an internship with a small biotech. It was an entry-level analytics role, but it came with the opportunity to immerse in a whole new industry.
By the time he graduated from MIT in 2005, Rozen had learned to love the rhythms of drug development enough to take a full-time biotech role and a leave of absence from Berklee. That leave would “never formally end.”
Learning new chords
Over the next 20 years, Rozen gradually moved backward through the industry, determinedly learning the ins and outs of clinical trials, drug profiles and the competitive pharmaceutical landscape before repeating the process around preclinical drug development.
By 2011, he’d gained insight into nearly every stage of the pharmaceutical pipeline and worked his way back to basic research and drug discovery to take a role as senior director of strategic alliances at the Broad Institute.
There, Rozen worked closely with the faculty to develop concepts for new companies and structured novel business frameworks for licensing intellectual property and technologies to maximize their impact and public benefit. He also forged many industrial partnerships to drive and accelerate projects in drug discovery, genetics, and tool and technology development.
After a few years building the Institute’s Office of Strategic Alliances and Partnering and guiding gene editing projects — especially those centered around the transformative CRISPR technology co-developed at the Broad — he stepped up to the role of chief business officer and joined the Broad’s Executive Leadership Team, a position with greater input into the direction, culture and organization of the Institute.
Into the limelight
In 2018, while still at the Broad, he co-founded Verve Therapeutics, a Google Ventures-incubated startup focused on realizing gene editing therapies for cardiovascular disease.
Though he’d previously worked with Google Ventures on a number of Broad spinouts, this was the start of a “deeper relationship” with the team. In 2019, he joined Google Ventures in a part-time role as a venture partner and, in 2021, he transitioned into a full-time role, allowing him to “focus on the part I always enjoyed most”: helping scientists take a spark of inspiration, incubate the idea and build it into an investment-backed company.
When I hear an idea that I like, I start exploring it, and if I still like it after playing it for a while, I’ll write a tune around it.
Last February, he helped Feng Zhang’s renowned lab at the Broad launch Aera Therapeutics, a company hoping to break past the delivery barrier in genetic medicine by harnessing endogenous human proteins that self-assemble into capsid-like structures with the ability to transfer nucleic acid payloads directly to a target.
“I’m very excited about Aera,” Rozen says. “It’s still very early, but if it translates, it holds promise to transform many, many diseases.”
At IPI, he sees a similar opportunity to transform protein therapeutics and “give rise to the next generation of therapeutics,” he says. And IPI’s status as a nonprofit puts it in an ideal position to make foundational discoveries and develop new tools for the benefit of the protein science field.
“For-profits are subject to the constraints that investors put on them. In a not-for-profit setting, you can be more patient and take on risks that for-profits might not be able to take on,” he says.
At their essence, the risks of forwarding scientific ideas are not entirely different than the risks of putting out musical ideas in the heat of a performance. In fact, Rozen says his conversations with scientists always remind him of the jazz musicians he used to play with—full of “remarkable natural talent and a drive to pursue something very specific.”
“The musical idea always comes from improvisation,” Rozen said back in 2004 in a discussion about his last album, the Middle Eastern-infused “Dark Beauty.” “When I hear an idea that I like, I start exploring it, and if I still like it after playing it for a while, I’ll write a tune around it.”
And he sees an innovative melody evolving around IPI.
“It’s very clear that there is a really remarkable opportunity to do something special here,” he says.
The Institute for Protein Innovation is pioneering a new approach to scientific discovery and collaboration. As a nonprofit research institute, we provide the biomedical research community with synthetic antibodies and deep protein expertise, empowering scientists to explore fundamental biological processes and pinpoint new targets for therapeutic development. Our mission is to advance protein science to accelerate research and improve human health. For more information, visit proteininnovation.org or follow us on social media, @ipiproteins.