MassBio is launching a new series, “MassCONNECT: Where are they now?” which will feature different MassCONNECT graduates and the progress they've made since going through the program. We spoke with co-founders of Blue Therapeutics, who went through the program in 2015, and whose technology began at the Harvard Innovation Launch Lab, a start-up incubator and co-working space for select Harvard alumni ventures.
Can you tell us about your therapy and what it's meant to address?
The current opioid epidemic causes tens of thousands of deaths each year while leaving pain patients without good therapeutic options. Based on our novel technology targeting a new type of receptor in the central nervous system, Blue Tx is developing first-in-class analgesics. Our lead candidate molecule, which is going through IND-enabling studies, possesses 50x the potency of morphine while being devoid of tolerance, withdrawal, respiratory depression, and other standard opioid side effects. Our goal is to take this and other molecules into the clinic where we hope to provide a legitimate replacement to current opioids and give safe, effective relief to those in chronic pain.
What were (or are) some of your biggest challenges in launching a new company?
When we began this company several years ago, we were all coming out of academic positions. We had a promising technological platform, but needed to advance the business case behind it. Probably our biggest challenge in this regard was finding good advisers and mentors to help us. We needed help thinking about very specific things, like how best to secure our IP, and very broad things, like our overall company strategy and vision.
Why did you apply to be part of the MassCONNECT program?
We applied to the MassCONNECT program because its structure was unique compared to other accelerator or incubator programs. Whereas other programs focused on pitching to an investor type of audience, MassCONNECT assembled a diverse team of industry experts and allowed us to steer the conversation. One week we could ask the team about our technology, the next week we could ask them about our clinical trial plans. In this way, meeting-to-meeting, we could logically “de-risk” each element of our business. This almost functioned like having board meetings before our company had a board. Just watching how the discussion flowed between each member of the panel was an incredible learning process.
How did the Mass CONNECT program help take your company to the next level?
MassCONNECT has helped our company in many ways. First, the program helped us to refine every aspect of our business and have the confidence that what we were doing was important with the potential to have real impact. Next, several members of our expert panel have remained important advisers and consultant to us, even years later. Finally, MassCONNECT has quite literally connected us to the broader industry community. They have facilitated partnering meetings with around a dozen different pharma companies, kept us informed of developments in our technology space, and made introductions to a host of government officials that support our cause.
Can you describe any big wins or major milestones met since you went through the program?
Since completing the program, we have received three major government grants, a private foundation award, and made considerable progress in advancing our program towards the clinic. Scientifically we have achieved major milestones by showing our lead molecule has better efficacy than the standard of care in several different rodent models of pain and demonstrating its potential as both an i.v. and orally available therapeutic.
What’s next for your company/what are you focused on in the coming years?
We continue to be focused on advancing our core technology towards the clinic and diversifying our pipeline for the future. We hope that MassBio will continue to be an important partner in our mission for safer, more effective painkillers.
About the Co-Founders:
Ajay Yekkirala, PhD, Co-Founder
Ajay completed his doctoral studies in the lab of Dr. Philip Portoghese at the University of Minnesota and post-doctoral training under renowned pain neurobiologist Clifford Woolf at Harvard Medical School. He has authored numerous papers published in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals on the topic of pain and opioids, including several book chapters and invited reviews. He is also a recipient of the Bacaner Research Award from the Minnesota Medical Foundation.
David Roberson, PhD, Co-Founder
David spent 8 years developing novel analgesics, anti-pruritics and antitussives under the direction of Harvard Medical School pain neurobiologist, Clifford Woolf, MD, PhD. Before this, David worked in clinical trials management and investment banking. David's drug discovery experience includes contributions toward IND filings in the analgesic space and he is an inventor on numerous drug- and drug development-related patents. He has 11 peer-reviewed publications focused on preclinical drug development and multiple national and international meeting and poster presentations. David received his M.B.A. from Harding University and his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University, where he was named as one of eight Harvard Horizons Scholars from across the university.
Michio Painter, PhD, Co-Founder
Michio spent nearly a decade advancing basic biological research at Harvard University, including helping to launch the Immunological Genome Project (www.immgen.org), completing a PhD in the lab of pain neurobiologist Clifford Woolf, and performing post-doctoral studies with Amy Wagers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Prior to beginning his scientific career, Michio acted as COO in a boutique fashion company in New York.