An event two years in the making, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council’s popular panel discussion series TigerTalks in the City came to NewYork-Presbyterian’s David H. Koch Center in the Upper East Side for “How Genomics Are Driving Novel Therapies”.
After opening remarks by Dr. Laura Forese ’83, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian, panelists Prof. Yibin Kang, Dr. Mark Esposito *17, Dr. Stacy Blain ’89, Dr. Debra Yu ’86, Jacob Van Naarden ’06 and moderator and PEC executive director Anne-Marie Maman ’84 explored the current landscape around genomics and how it is changing a number of facets of healthcare and venture fundraising, in the U.S. and in China.
Maman: Now that you can more clearly identify the patients who will best respond to your technology through genomics, has the issue of finding patients been solved?
Debra Yu, president and CBO of LianBio, a company focused on developing therapeutic medicines in China: Now it is easier to identify patients for clinical trials - if you know you're studying a drug which happens to relate to one particular gene or set of gene aberrations, you can develop an assay to find the patients that should be enrolled into the trial. In that way, genomics makes it somewhat easier. But it’s not always so straightforward. Let’s say we all have the same issue, but we metabolize the drug at different levels because the metabolizing enzymes in our liver are all different. We all might qualify for the study. But since we metabolize differently, and both metabolizers and non-metabolizers were in the trial, it would look like the trial failed – since you can’t show that the patient group metabolized the drug.
Stacy Blain, Associate Professor in Cell Biology and Pediatrics at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and co-founder and CSO of Concarlo Holdings, which develops diagnostic and therapeutic applications for cdk4-dependent diseases: We can use genomics and proteomics to figure out why some patients fail – we can explore the other escape mechanisms. Some patients just have resistance mechanisms. With the use of genomics we are able to identify and then to also figure out why a particular therapy is not working. With that information, we can then move that subset of patients over to other therapies and/or develop secondary-type drugs to deal with that resistance to this synergistic mechanism. So I think that it is a matter of using new technologies smartly, with a good understanding of the pathways and of the escape mechanisms, that make them valuable.
Maman: Can you talk a little bit about the early stage funding environment?
Esposito, co-founder and CEO of Kayothera, a cancer therapy spinout from Princeton University, co-founded by Prof. Kang: We are in the seed stage moving towards Series A. In the past, when we talked to seed investors, they were super pumped when you say you're going to cure cancer. Just having a lot of optimism and having a new class of drugs in a relevant field where people are investing, that attracted a lot of people who are very interested in a seed round. They are looking to put in anywhere from half a million up to a couple million dollars, to really vet the idea. We have seen a lot of investors who are very risk tolerant at this phase. What we see is that you can even be pre-chemistry, you can only have biology, and there are investors out there who will invest to use those seed funds to transition the company to the point that it has a molecule.
But what we have noticed, now that we are moving towards a Series A, is that they now want to see real, legitimate chemistry that is advanced beyond what an academic lab can do. And so to raise funds for an A round, we need to have an incredible amount of chemistry and biology around our molecules. And then they even want the first patient as well! So it's a tall order, getting to that next step.
Yu: I've been in the industry for over thirty years. For the first twenty I was focused on the US markets. For the last ten years I have focused my attention on China. It is really fascinating to see how China is taking things that it took our U.S. biotech industry 40 years to advance, and compressing it all into 10 years. So now in China there are thousands of biotech companies focused in specific geographic areas, just like it is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, San Diego and San Francisco. There was $40 billion of new capital raised in China, in each of the last two years, for investment into private life sciences companies.
Maman: Jake, now you’re on the inside (of Eli Lilly, which purchased Loxo Oncology for $8 billion earlier this year) and making choices both about investing on internal projects and on the acquisition of new technologies. You’ve been on the fundraising side looking for both early and late stage seed, how is it different to be within a big company?
Jake Van Naarden, co-founder and COO of Loxo Oncology: Well, for one thing there's more funding, which is a nice change.
Over the last few months the original Loxo team has been integrating into Eli Lilly, helping to run research and development in oncology. One of the things that I’ve observed is the perception, both inside large pharmaceutical companies and out in the market in general, that large pharma companies are working on so many different great things. One of the interesting corollaries of this, is that a lot of companies put equal opportunity resourcing onto all of these various programs. One of the things that make small biotech companies effective, in my opinion, is that they're very focused. And they are focused because they are resource-constrained. As a founder you are forced to focus maybe on only one thing, or if you are lucky maybe on just a very few things. But you're forced to focus on the things that are likely going to actually work and that matter – you are driven by clear value adding milestones. So one of the things that we're trying to do in our new roles is to take the list of however many ideas or programs there are and to say, okay, which of these are really going to be products? We're taking a startup biotech forced focusing exercise and applying it to a large pharmaceutical company. Time will tell if we’re successful.
During Q&A, an audience member asked “How does Princeton handle intellectual property and financial considerations of professors spinning out companies?”
Prof. Kang, Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology and co-founder of Kayothera: Whatever discovery is made in the lab, Princeton owns the patents. We started Kayothera with licenses of the intellectual property from the university. There are also limitations about my involvement, as a faculty member, in a new startup company. There are limits as to what I can do and what I cannot do. I cannot be an executive of the company, CEO, CSO, any kind of “O” in the company. But I can serve in a scientific advisory role and give input to the company. I can also say that the Office of Technology Licensing has really supported us and they have helped us to navigate the early stages of forming the company.
Princeton Entrepreneurship Council extends its thanks to Laura Forese ’83 and staff at NewYork-Presbyterian for the generous use of their event spaces.