First Person Experience with the Kauffman FastTrac® Course

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Cherry Wongtrakool is an associate professor of pulmonary medicine and a medical director at the Atlanta VA. She recently completed the Kauffman FastTrac® course and shares her experience.

Tell me about your background/research interests. Were you always interested in research that had commercial potential?

I am a pulmonologist and I take care of patients. The reason why I enjoy research is because I want to be able to add to the body of knowledge that translates directly into helping my patients. I will say that I probably did not go into research with the thought that I would be doing something along the lines of commercialization, but everybody considers their research to be translational in some way. For many clinicians, the reason we do research is to find out how to better serve and better help our patients, so anything we do serves to achieve that ultimate goal.

How did you first decide you were interested in forming a startup?

Well, we haven’t formed a startup yet. We’re still in what would be considered the “preclinical stages” or the “discovery stages” where we’re doing a lot of in vitro and in vivo work to create a body of data that we can use to show to investors once the startup is formed. If you don’t have the data to support your startup idea, you might as well not form the startup. If your data is not very convincing, you won’t be able to attract investor funding, so the quality of your body of work is essential.

We are looking at a nanoparticle-based delivery of oligonucleotides to regulate a specific gene in Type II inflammation in asthma with Khalid Salaita from the Chemistry department. We collaborate where he’s the chemistry arm and I’m the physiology arm. Because our commercialization would fall under the umbrella of drug development, it’s hard to advance without any in vivo data in this pre-clinical, pre-discovery phase. It’s very difficult to do only test tube or cell culture work and then expect to take it through to full drug development because seeing something in a test tube or cell culture is insufficient.  That limited approach doesn’t give any information about possible toxicities, for instance.

What was the rationale for forming a startup as opposed to licensing the technology to an established company?

At this stage, it’s still quite early to think about licensing, although I suppose theoretically it could happen. We feel we need a startup to attract funding to do the really heavy preclinical work needed to apply for an investigational new drug application with the FDA. That work typically includes toxicity and pharmacokinetic studies, with large studies involving two different types of animal species. Drug development has its own unique pathway to commercialization compared to a medical app or a medical device.

Had you previously had interests in entrepreneurship or developing commercial applications for your own research?

This is my first foray into the world of startups. I never really thought about our research in this way before or in this much detail. I didn’t study business or anything like that as an undergraduate. I think that our technology has a lot of potential for growth with different applications. We’re obviously targeting a very specific disease, asthma, and a very specific subset of that disease, but based on our technology, it potentially could have significant impact in other diseases too. From that perspective, it would be nice to see everything come to fruition.

What initially interested you in signing up for the Kauffman course?

As part of this whole venture, we were funded by the Coulter Translational Fund, which is a jointly administered between Georgia Tech and Emory. Getting funded by Coulter involves meeting regularly with their advisors and investors. A lot of what they were saying was relatively new to me. One of the questions as an academic is if you do form a startup, what is your role in it? Are you a CEO? Are you a CFO? Are you a CSO? Are you a CMO?  I didn’t know what to look for in a CEO, because an academic job and the CEO of a startup requires a different skill set.

I didn’t know what I was looking for in a CEO or what do they needed to do. Kevin was unable to attend, but this year, I thought “Okay, since we are potentially getting close to eventually forming a startup company with our data set growing stronger, it would be good for me to learn a little bit more about this.”

What were the most important lessons during the Kauffman sessions?

The biggest lesson I learned was that there is a completely different vocabulary to understand. Otherwise, what was really helpful was the way the course was designed. They invited people who were local to talk about different aspects of having a startup. One speaker gave a great talk about company valuation. There was a talk on IP, which is always helpful. The speakers were very supportive of the Kauffman course, so they were quick to say, “If you have any questions, please reach out to us, just email us directly.” Having that connection as a potential resource, even though you may not necessarily reach out to each person, was really wonderful. Kauffman also gave us a “toolbox,” which had a lot of information and examples of agreements with different companies and different investors, and spreadsheets for different budgetary projections. The course was very informational.

Was there anything you wish had been taught during the Kauffman course or you felt like could have been done differently?

One thing that is always good to learn more about is intellectual property as it relates to drug development. It’s a very specific area, so having a one-on-one with someone who does IP would have been nice, but obviously that may not be feasible in this crash course on entrepreneurship. A lot of drug development startups rest very heavily on their IP. Without proper IP protections, you are not in a strong position to compete for investor dollars. An investor will likely say “If I invest in you, someone might come in with the same thing, then how do I know I will get a return?”

What do you see as your next step after completing the Kauffman course?

I feel like I’m better equipped to search for a CEO because I know the things we need our CEO to have experience with.  Somebody who was a CEO in non-pharmaceutical industries may be good with people skills and management skills, but they may not be the right person simply because they might not have the right contacts in the biomedical space to bring in investor dollars. I think I’m also more able to participate in ongoing conversations about what the needs of our investors are and how to structure milestones for the startup.

You mentioned that you had received Coulter funding and I know you also got funding from the GRA — how is that type of funding helpful?

Coulter funded us at the very beginning. Coulter is a stakeholder and investor in this process and they’ve provided us with ongoing consultancy. They’re very aware of what’s going on in the local market and they meet frequently with GRA (Georgia Research Alliance). There’s important cross talk between the two because GRA’s goal is to advance biomedical research in Georgia whereas Coulter is specific to Emory and Georgia Tech, so they have a very symbiotic relationship. We had GRA Phase I funding to help us do third-party validation studies. We don’t have GRA Phase II funding yet, but we are applying for it.

Both the Coulter and GRA funding have been immensely supportive and crucial to our project.  Without either of them, we would certainly be years away from where we are. That’s because traditional funding mechanisms such as the NIH or the NSF do not typically fund these types of efforts for individual investigators. They don’t fund repetitive third-party validations, so we really are dependent on the Coulter and the GRA funds to move our research down the commercialization path. It’s different once you’re a startup company because then the company can apply for NIH Small Business grants, but if you haven’t formed a company yet, your options are limited.