By Laura Paisley

A mission-driven serial entrepreneur, Twister Biotech President and CEO Chris Coker is focused on using nanotechnology and non-viral gene therapy to tackle intractable diseases.

After graduating from Occidental in 1995 with an economics degree, Chris Coker was back in his hometown of Houston. He had taken an entry-level analyst position with Enron, which, at the time, was regularly touted as the most innovative company in the world. 

He started a group called the Urban Business Initiative, which brought together young professionals like himself to work with small companies in the poorest neighborhoods of Houston to help them with their business challenges.

“It was my first on-the-ground exposure to real entrepreneurs struggling with hard decisions like ‘What should I invest in and when? What’s my plan? What products should I roll out?’”

The challenge left him smitten and propelled him into an entrepreneurship and finance-focused MBA program at the University of Chicago. (He jokes that Woody Studenmund’s econometrics course helped him get the highest grade in his stat class.)

“I wrote my business school essays about wanting to be a serial entrepreneur—someone who starts, grows and sells companies multiple times in their career,” Chris says. Entrepreneurship gives you a vehicle to affect the most difficult problems plaguing our society, whether it’s access to available energy, food, or therapeutics. You can change people’s lives in a very fundamental way. That's the principal draw for me.”

A man on a mission

With six figures’ worth of grad school debt and an admirable degree of risk tolerance for the volatile young entrepreneur lifestyle, Chris joined the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Taproot Ventures in 2000. His role was to identify developing technologies that Taproot could seed and build teams to support. The job exposed him to early efforts to commercialize nanotechnology research, which would prove to be auspicious.

“I have a very short attention span, so it's a lot of fun to study different technologies and get very deep very quickly,” he says. “And these are fields that are moving very rapidly.”

Chris is a named inventor on 30 issued patents, and has been working with very, very small particles in deep science startups—companies founded on the basis of scientific discoveries—for the last 20 years. He launched his first nanotech startup, Oxane Materials, with two Rice University professors in 2002 to develop and commercialize an oil and gas recovery enhancement technology. At peak headcount, the company employed 300 people, including 50 R&D scientists.  

In November 2016, Chris partnered with Baylor College of Medicine Professor Lynn Zechiedrich to launch Twister Biotech. The company is developing non-viral gene therapies for diseases with unacceptable mortality rates—initially ovarian cancer, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and osteosarcoma. Its name was inspired by the supercoiled DNA nanoparticles (MiniVectors) which form the basis for its therapies.

“To put the size of MiniVectors in perspective,” Chris says, “a human hair is about 70 microns. One micron is a thousand nanometers. At 5 by 45 nanometers, MiniVectors are remarkably small particles.”

MiniVectors offer several key advantages. Because they’re so small, they readily penetrate, or “transfect,” cells. And because they’re exceptionally pure, the body doesn’t react negatively to the therapy, which allows for an ongoing benefit.

Lastly, there is no known resistance mechanism to DNA. Appreciating this along with the safety profile of MiniVectors, Twister is optimistic that its therapies will be eminently re-doseable. This is especially important in cancer treatment, where resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy can arise quickly.

“Technology is exciting because it affords new ways of solving these long-ranging, intractable problems,” Chris says.

The foundations of a career

When looking at colleges, Chris was initially attracted to Occidental’s Diplomacy & World Affairs program and the Kahane U.N. Program. But it was economics that won him over in the end

“I took one economics class and suddenly the world made a lot more sense,” he says.

Chris became involved with the Blyth Fund, the student-managed investment fund established in 1977. Getting real-world exposure to economic decision making and the fundamental questions that capitalist decision makers confront daily was a tremendous experience, he says.

He feels Oxy prepared him well for graduate school, and he still remembers favorite professors such as Jim Halstead and Robby Moore in economics, Larry Caldwell and Jane Jaquette in political science, and general counsel Howell Ellerman ’81. “These are people that were very important to my mental model—how I think about the world.”

To him, the value of a liberal arts education is that it offers young people a structured model of thought to consider the world and helps them question what they believe and why.

“It also provides a disciplined, rational way to undertake learning new things—and the most important thing any young person pursuing any career can have is the ability to learn quickly.”

So does Chris have any advice for Oxy students and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow?

“I think in all things, fortune favors the bold and seizing the means of production is probably the best way to affect change in our society,” he says. “If you have strong values and beliefs, the best way to express and focus on them is to pursue a business that speaks to them.”