(My apologies, I tried not to carry on the baseball pun but it was a soft pitch.)
On Thursday June 12th, UCSF hosted the BayBio Fellows All-Star Team (FAST) Advisory Program final pitch showcase. The FAST Advisory Program provides eight weeks of intensive coaching on business model development, product development planning, and creating a viable commercialization strategy. The five teams of the program were polished and energetic as they presented to a room of biotech investors, advisors, potential future team members, and program alumni, like XCell Biosciences, who were finalists in the recent Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable OneStart Americas competition.
The first pitch from Colleen Cutcliffe of Whole Biome described their Complete Biome TestTM as a step to answering, “What does it mean to bring the microbiome into healthy balance?” This team has already established impressive collaborations with the Mayo Clinic to identify indicators of preterm labor and AOBiome to advance their ammonia oxidizing bacterial products. Cutcliffe kept the audience engaged by sharing Whole Biome’s “naïve entrepreneur” story (every start up has at least one) where the first check was in the mail but they had no where to put it. Their realization, “We need a bank account,” seems so obvious but it exemplifies how the basics get overlooked when consumed by the rush of innovation, partnering, and fund raising.
Cutcliffe envisions a different approach to microbiome modulation than my favorite OneStart finalists, Symbiotic Health (blog on the finals here). Symbiotic Health’s BactoCaps combat Clostridium difficile infections by dosing the patient with alternative, beneficial bacterial strains. Whole Biome will forgo this growing market of bacteria-filled capsules or “poop pills” in favor of more target therapeutics in the future. (For more on the “poop pill” phenomemon see Sarah Zhang’s Nature article here.)
Though not related to bacteria, artist Tobias Wong created gold poop pills for the INDULGENCE art collection to add a little shimmer to your bowel movements for $425.
Kelly Gardner pitched Zephyrus Biosciences’ single-cell western blotting technology. Single-cell methods are rapidly growing and improving, as reflected in single-cell sequencing being named Nature’s Method of the Year in 2013. Fluidigm is dominating the single-cell market and will probably show interest in Zephyrus soon if they have not already. This technology is an end-of-the-line assay since the cells have to die to be blotted, but I would assume stem cell cancer therapeutics companies, like Stem CentRx, that require single-cell resolution tumor typing will provide an eager market for this technology.
Zephyrus Biosciences team (image from Sky Deck, Berkeley)
Applied Molecular Transport, pitched by Tahir Mahmood, is adapting an alternative cholera-causing toxin identified in Peru to transport drugs into the cells of the gut. This allows for the conversion of injectable drugs into an oral format. Currently they are focused on inflammatory bowel disease, but could this be applicable to antibiotics, especially those to treat serious Gram-negative infections, like Achaogen’s plazomicin, thus shortening expensive hospital stays? Mahmood admits that ensuring “stability from mouth to gut cell wall” is a challenge but one they are actively addressing.
Kate Garrett and Ciel Medical are combating ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) with a suction catheter device and ventilator placement tool. When introducing Kate, Stephanie Diaz, President and CEO of Vida Strategic Partners, praised her clarity and ingenuity by reflecting, “Why can’t I think of things like that?” This ingenuity comes across in their MacGyver-style testing of these devices at the largest nursing conference in the US where they proved that 99 percent of nurses could place the suction catheter properly, but none could properly place the current alternative. VAP is a leading cause of hospital related death and these devices will start saving lives immediately.
The pitches closed with Adam Mendelsohn of Nano Precision Medical. The team members, described by Jo Whitehouse, CEO of JumpStart BioDevelopment, as rare, entrepreneurial “good listeners”, have developed the NanoPortalTM. This device is an implantable, all-titanium capsule for long-term, constant-rate delivery of therapeutic molecules. Currently the focus is on delivery of exenatide for Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Mendelsohn shared some eye candy graphics of the delivery dynamics that are now on their website, which went live two days before the event. Nano Precision is leaving FAST with more than extensive training: one of their program advisors, Wouter Roorda, introduced himself by telling the team all the reasons why they were doomed and is now righting all those problems as Vice President of Pharmaceutical Product Development.
Static image of videos of the Goldilocks Effect. Visit the website to watch the video and trace the curve. It’s worth it!
The night was a positive one, except for what has become the frustrating norm at life science and biotech events: the repetitive comments about angst-riddled postdocs and the constant internal struggle whether to stick it out or abandon science. When introducing Zephyrus Biosciences, Jenny Rooke of Fidelity Biosciences remarked that every day she sees disenchanted and lost graduate students and postdocs. Every event continues to reinforce the obvious deterioration of the traditional system.
However, entrepreneurship is offering alternative options to challenge and leverage PhD scientists as exemplified by FAST and similar programs. There is still hope for science.