Sridhar Prasad, PhD, is Founder and Vice President of Research at CalAsia Pharmaceuticals Inc., and SDEE member.
We caught up with Dr. Prasad about CalAsia, as they were recently awarded a $600,000 NIH Phase I SBIR grant. He tells us how he got started and how to persevere.
SDEE: What kind of company is CalAsia Pharmaceuticals?
CalAsia Pharmaceuticals is a drug discovery company. We are focused on neurological disorders and ocular diseases associated with protein misfolding and aggregation. We have developed a platform technology that combines fragment screening and X-ray crystallography, which enables us to discover small molecules with a high propensity to cross the blood brain barrier. Drug discovery is challenging. However, discovering drugs that reach the brain, central nervous system (CNS), or the eye, is even more challenging because of the complexities associated with the blood brain and the blood ocular barrier. Our technology and our proprietary library increase the likelihood of discovering molecules that reach the CNS to produce an effective clinical outcome.
SDEE: How did you get started?
There were five of us that started the company in 2009. The other four founders gradually moved away in a short period of time, and I became the sole person in charge of running everything. We rented space from Orphagen Pharmaceuticals and started doing some preliminary work, generated data, and submitted grants. We submitted five grants and two were funded. We had money to do real research in 2010.
SDEE: How are you funded now?
We write NIH grants and in parallel pursued private funding. Altogether we have submitted at least 18-20 grant applications to NIH and non-profit organizations. We have received three grants from the NIH, one as recent as in May 2014, and one large grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation. In addition, a collaboration established with a company we met at an SDEE event resulted in a funding of a grant, with CalAsia being a sub-awardee. We’ve secured some private funding, and I’m in the final stages of building a Series A with a small boutique angel investor. We also offer CRO-based services in the areas of molecular biology, protein chemistry, in vitro screening, structural biology and X-ray crystallography to support our internal drug discovery.
SDEE: Have you ever run out of money?
At the end of 2012 we ran out of funds. Throughout 2013 there were no salaries or payroll, not even for me. It was the most difficult time in the life of our company. But I had this mission and ambition to make things happen. I had strong support from my family that kept me going. My only focus was putting as many grant applications in as possible. In 2013, I was able to keep the lights on by securing a $100,000 convertible debt agreement from two well-wishers.
SDEE: Did you have to let go of employees?
I gave them a choice to stay or go. Since they had been with me for so long they preferred to stay. They were not drawing any salary. No experiments were done. They were helping me put the grants together. We were trying to come up with ideas and collaborate with people to generate grant applications.
SDEE: How will you use your new round of funding?
We have an advanced brain permeable small molecule lead to treat neurofibromatosis type-2, a rare genetic disorder for which the only available treatment is surgery. Most of the funds will be dedicated to pre-clinical development of the most advanced program. We hope to have a phase one investigational new drug (IND) clinical-ready candidate by the first quarter of 2016. In addition we will be initiating a couple of other new programs.
SDEE: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
I have been thinking about this since 2001 when I joined Syrrx, which was a high throughput structural biology company. I was the lead crystallographer for their very first internal drug discovery program, which resulted in a marketed drug. I thought that using my strengths in structural biology and X-ray crystallography was an efficient way of developing drugs expeditiously, and I wanted to build on that. I never got serious because I was happy and receiving a regular paycheck. But in 2009, I was working for Metabasis when it shut down. At that point I thought it was time to do something on my own.
SDEE: What advice do you have for others?
Perseverance, patience, and building a network are extremely important. Be ready for ups and downs. One day you have high enthusiasm and the next day you’re worried about keeping the lights on. You will have to make sacrifices. Also be prepared to wait four or five years to see the rewards of your efforts.