There’s one central reason that Agustin Lopez Marquez, a chemical engineer, was able to pioneer what Scientific American has called a “world changing” idea: The United States let him in. “In Venezuela, chemical engineers are often constrained to the energy industry,” he says. “It was only when I came to the United States that I realized chemical engineers could have a big impact in the medical field too.”
In the grand scheme of things, immigration is a win-win for everyone.
Today his company, SQZ Biotech, “is on the cutting edge of medical innovation in America.” It has also created over 20 new jobs, two-thirds of which have been filled by Americans. “So, in the grand scheme of things,” Lopez Marquez says, “immigration is a win-win for everyone.”
SQZ Biotech re-engineers cells to help fight cancer and other diseases. Its technology is called CellSqueeze—a process that literally squeezes cells open in order to insert molecules that will strengthen those cells. One of the most promising applications of this technology is immunotherapy, a medical treatment that takes a patient’s disease-fighting cells out of the body, strengthens them, and then reinserts them back into the body.
CellSqueeze was invented by Armon Sharei at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the labs of professors Bob Langer and Klavs Jensen. Lopez Marquez met Sharei, whose parents are from Iran, while they were both pursuing graduate degrees in chemical engineering at MIT. In 2013, the two friends became business partners. Lopez Marquez says that his international background was a key factor in his success with SQZ Biotech. “When you’re raised in a developing country like Venezuela, you learn to become resourceful because many things people take for granted in developed countries are not a given there,” he says. “It creates an entrepreneurial mindset where you think, ‘I’ll figure this out, regardless of the challenges.’”
Although Lopez Marquez left SQZ Biotech in 2015 to work at a global pharmaceutical company, he remains in close contact with his old team. “They’re currently working with pharmaceutical companies to start the first phase of a clinical trial,” Lopez Marquez says, “and the ultimate vision is to develop treatments that dramatically improve the lives of patients suffering from some of the worst diseases in the world.”