Geert Schmid-Schoenbein, Scientific Founder – Guarding Gastrointestinal Integrity and Health

A fresh Q&A series featuring ambassadors of innovation and technology, fueling entrepreneurship at UC San Diego and beyond


It All Starts in the Gut.

What happens when the intestine digests itself? UC San Diego ’76 alumnus and Leading Science’s scientific founder and former chair of the Department of Bioengineering, Schmid-Schoenbein has dedicated his research to exactly this question, spearheading the autodigestion theory and solutions.  

“I’ve had the great privilege of working as a bioengineer on a variety of human diseases over my career,” recalls Schmid-Schoenbein. “We have spent years trying to understand what causes organs to fail. Is it possible that the small intestine not only digests food but also can digest itself? We come to realize, yes, it is quite possible.”

Animals on this planet have an intestine to digest food. The gastrointestinal tract offers a metaphorical shield that has become critical in leading the way in therapeutic innovation. Leading BioSciences is one of the pharmaceutical industry’s leading companies focused on the Gastrobiome™ and the role that it plays in both human health and medical conditions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, Leading BioSciences is investigating their lead treatment, LB1148, as a potential therapy for patients with coronavirus-associated acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and multiorgan dysfunction syndrome (MODS), keeping digestive enzymes from damaging organs after they escape from the intestine into the bloodstream.


What has been your experience with UC San Diego in developing a diverse entrepreneurial culture?

UC San Diego’s culture is essential to its entrepreneurial success. When the Bioengineering Hall was being built on campus, it was funded by a private foundation – with a request to feature programs with an entrepreneurial focus and hence the Von Liebig Center was born.

During the time, I happened to apply for one of the seed grants provided, meeting with individuals from Leading Biosciences who became interested in my ideas. This would not have happened this way without the Center. UC San Diego was responsible for this matchmaking. It was the spark that led to over 15 years of entrepreneurial activity since our founding. 

What excites you about your work?

It’s the idea we are persuing.  Digestion is a process that goes on every day, no exceptions. Digestion hinges on one important condition…you do not want those digestive enzymes anywhere else in body other than in the small intestine. But where else does digestion occur and would that turn into an autodigestion of one’s tissue? Under what conditions would this occur?

“In the context of coronavirus, what is actually killing the patient after an infection?

We believe the virus takes advantage of digestive enzymes and autodigestion.”

What excites me is that may be autodigestion is a mechanism that manifests in other diseases that we are exploring and investigating. In the context of coronavirus, what is actually killing the patient after an infection? We believe the virus takes advantage of digestive enzymes and autodigestion.

While replicating in the epithelial cells of the intestine, the barrier to digestive enzymes is damaged and they escape into the circulation and do harm to other organs. We are currently in the approval phase from FDA to explore this issue.

Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?

Much of what I do is helping to obtain clinical results.  As a scientific founder, I consult and provide the company with advice to carry out clinical studies. In the laboratory, we are testing new ideas, including what other processes or diseases could be impacted by Autodigestion.

UC San Diego is the perfect place for research since we have two large medical centers on campus and can examine these ideas in collaborations with clinicians.

How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?

There are lots of forms of innovation, the campus is buzzing with them. In areas focused on human disease, we are living at a time when there are suggestions for the origin of a particular disease, but often with uncertainty.  Real innovation will come when we identify one day with certainty the mechanisms for diseases. 

As you read the literature today on many important diseases, you start to realize…nobody really knows with certainty. There are lots of good ideas but often speculations. The ability to prevent a disease requires a fully understanding how it originates in the first place. 

There are aspects of medicine, for example infectious diseases or dental diseases, where progress has been fantastic and we have major understanding of these diseases and good interventions. Yet the root causes of other diseases – we still do not know. Innovation for me happens when this speculation stops. As a society, we have to find a way to get out of guessing about an important issue like health.

I hope we are setting the ground today so the next generation will look at human disease and know exactly where it is coming from. They will immediately ask…how can one prevent this? This moment will usher in the greatest innovations of our time with the deepest impact. 

What role have mentors played in your success/journey?

They were all important.  Without mentors, I would be nowhere. I’ve had some of the greatest mentors in bioengineering on this planet. I was able to get into the Bioengineering Department in the early stages, working with founders of the program for many years. I was very fortunate.

The field of autodigestion is just at the very beginning, with UC San Diego leading the way. I try to mentor as many young people as I can; I spend a lot of time talking about Autodigestion with students and postdoctoral fellows. That’s my greatest enjoyment, getting people interested in this field.  There is so much work to be done.

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?

The key issue has been convincing investors to get involved, whether an individual or institutional investor. Can we convince them to pursue our ideas? Investors looking at a fundamentally new idea want to see clinical evidence.  But you do not get clinical results until you have an investor and carry out studies in patients. 

You have to work your way through this narrow path of options.  With incomplete evidence, you have to convince investors that your idea is a worthwhile undertaking. You have to satisfy FDA regulations.  Most important, you need to ask: where do I find somebody who would buy my invention? It will really help you improve your approach.  


“Search for a product that people need and want.  Gain knowledge to understand the technology being developed; it will never be perfect, but good enough so it can help a person. 

UC San Diego has a rich environment in which a bioscience company can thrive – from an intellectual and practical point of view.”


What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?

In general, search for a product that people need and want.  Gain knowledge to understand the technology being developed; it will never be perfect, but good enough so it can help a person.  For any health-related idea, reach out to clinicians and engage them into thinking about the technology you are interested in.  UC San Diego has a rich environment in which a bioscience company can thrive – from an intellectual and practical point of view.


To learn more, visit Leading Biosciences or contact Schmid-Schoenbein on LinkedIn.

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