BOSTON — It had been nine years since the Harvard neurobiologists first came up with an idea for an exquisitely targeted local anesthetic. They developed a new type of compound. They formed a team. And now they were days away from pitching their big idea to venture capital investors.
Just two problems: They hadn’t decided what condition they should be trying to treat with the new medication they hoped would result from their research.
And their venture had no name.
“I think it’s critical that we don’t show up to an investor meeting without a name,” said Michal Preminger, a director of business development at Harvard who has spent three years carefully guiding the two neurobiologists along the fraught path to market.
Preminger works with dozens of faculty each year as part of a major push by Harvard to turn its professors’ inventions into commercial products. It’s a familiar quest: There are now more than 200 technology transfer offices at universities across the country. They send scouts to identify promising work in scientific labs, push the researchers to consider commercial applications, and work with them to launch startups or license the discoveries out to existing companies.
The financial stakes are high: Both the universities and the faculty members can earn royalties on sales of any products that flow from the academic research.
Many ventures fail long before they bring universities any returns, and even the fraction that brings a technology to market often don’t bring in too much revenue. But a few schools have hit the jackpot: Northwestern University and New York University, for example, have each raked in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in recent years on the backs of licensing agreements that led companies to blockbuster drugs.
But Preminger says that Harvard prefers to think about any potential financial boon to the university as the end result of work that most importantly helps patients, and helps realize the ambitions of its faculty.To that end, she and her colleagues go all in to help the fledging businesses get off the ground.
And so, on an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, Preminger squeezed into a 12th-floor office with a handful of scientists and strategists to hash out a game plan for the new venture from neurobiologists Bruce Bean and Dr. Clifford Woolf. It was the first meeting attended by Ros Deegan, the venture’s new business executive — who is being paid by the Harvard tech transfer office.
Among the first topics of discussion: a name.
The search for the perfect name
Someone suggested “Target Pharmaceuticals.” But that might be confused with the pharmacies at the big-box retailer.
“Target Therapeutics” was better, but that might limit the venture to only targeted therapies.
“Diminuendo,” the musical term denoting a gradual decrease in loudness, was nice because it evoked the technology’s approach to silencing certain sensory neurons. But as biotech names go, it wasn’t a winner either.
The meeting ended without consensus.
Days later, however, a consultant suggested “Carica Health.” Everyone liked it for its double meaning in Italian: charged, like the compounds on which the venture is based, and charging ahead, as the two founders hope to do.
They also picked their first disease target.
Their compound, which works by selectively targeting and silencing pain-signalling sensory neurons that trigger inflammation when stimulated, had potential to treat asthma, cough, itch, and pain. They even thought about going after cystic fibrosis, but worried it might be harmful to suppress coughing in some patients.
They ended up prioritizing post-infectious cough, which can linger for weeks in otherwise healthy people after other symptoms of the common cold or flu go away. It was a tempting condition to go after: It makes people miserable. It’s common, which would make it easy to recruit patients. And existing treatments — which begin with over-the-counter medications, followed by narcotics or steroids — often don’t work or have significant drawbacks.
“Cough is completely underrated as a problem,” said Dr. Peter Dicpinigaitis, director of the Montefiore Cough Center in New York City. “We need safe, non-narcotic, non-steroidal medicines that would work for this type of cough, and those are lacking at this point.”
Carica’s founders have dabbled in other commercial endeavors in recent years. Bean, who studies neurophysiology and ion channel pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, helped develop a dietary supplement to fight muscle cramps that brought Flex Pharma an $86 million initial public offering nearly a year ago.
Woolf, a South African native and Harvard professor who studies pain at Boston Children’s Hospital, has been less lucky: the company he cofounded to commercialize another one of his inventions, Solace Pharmaceuticals, closed shop in 2009 — an experience that he jokes earned him an “MBA in failed entrepreneurship.”
A chance conversation leads to an idea
The idea of targeting nerves to treat airway conditions, as Carica hopes to do, is not new. It’s been “an attractive conceptual topic” among researchers for years, though none of these projects have been brought to market, according to Johns Hopkins pulmonologist Dr. Gregory Diette.
Bean and Woolf came up with the approach that’s evolved into Carica on a chilly evening in November 2006. As they shivered in the cold after a dinner, waiting for a valet parking attendant to return their cars, they talked out a novel way to develop a local anesthetic that would only target the specific nerve fibers that signal pain.
Their eureka moment led them to develop a new class of compounds — tested with promising results in mice and rats with the help of their clinical partner, Brigham and Women’s Hospital pulmonologist Dr. Bruce Levy.
Outside of the lab, they say, Preminger’s enthusiasm and drive have been invaluable. She helped them make the decision to try to launch a new company in the hope of helping patients. Introduced them to pharmaceutical executives for advice. Reviewed their presentations. Coached them through wrong turns and dead ends.
And even created artwork to depict their science. An amateur artist, Preminger made a collage atop a poster of an 18th-century painting of the Trojan War to represent what she describes as Carica’s “Trojan horse” approach: a compound that can trick an ion channel into letting it pass into selective nerve fibers to silence them. It’s now hung among Preminger’s other artistic creations in Harvard’s tech transfer office.
Preminger, a former biotech executive who speaks warmly in her native Israeli accent, said she’s “very, very hopeful” about Carica’s prospects. But she’s candid, too, about how often scientific ventures derail.
“I ache,” she said, “when projects hit a headlock.”
If the Carica team succeeds in luring investments, the venture will soon be incorporated as an official company that will license out Bean and Woolf’s invention from Harvard’s tech transfer office. For Bean and Woolf, who are keeping their day jobs, that will bring a bittersweet milestone. Although they’ll stay on as advisors to Carica, they’ll be handing over control to a new team of executives who will move forward in the drug development process largely without them.
“This is our baby,” Woolf said, “that we’ve grown from the beginning and protected.”