Founders Tales 2021

The annual Founders Tales from the San Diego Entrepreneur Exchange (SDEE) was on October 21, 2021 via Zoom. Marilyn Ferrari, the current SDEE’s president, thanked our platinum sponsors, Alexandria and Morrison/Foerster, and all the other SDEE sponsors: Longfellow, Takeda, Marsh & McLennan, and Wagenknecht Law Group. She also spoke about SDEE’s mission, community involvement, happy hours, and upcoming events. It is especially exciting that the San Diego mayor, Todd Gloria, will be at the 5th Annual San Diego Innovation Showcase by the San Diego Innovation Council (SDIC) on November 10th. And stay tuned for more information about the upcoming SDEE Holiday Party!

This year Founders Tales was moderated by Kathryn Halter and over 30 participants connected to listen to three great speakers:  Dr. Jeffrey Miner, co-founder and CSO of Viscient Bio and Organovo; Dr. Lada Rasochova, founder and CEO of Dermala; and Dr. Jeffrey Allen, President and founder of TumorGen.

Dr. Jeffrey Miner

After 20+ years of working in drug discovery, Jeffrey came to the realization that the vast majority of the compounds he had worked on had failed in the clinic. Either he was very bad at his job, or the cell cultures and animal models that pharma uses do not recapitulate well human diseases. In addition, the ethical issues requiring a limited use of animals in research led him to a paradigm shift. While working at Astra Zeneca, Jeffrey collaborated with a provider, Organovo, that focused on building 3D cell cultures as better models for drug discovery research. When Keith Murphy left Organovo, the two of them started Viscient in 2017. The goal was to discover compounds for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) using a bioprinting technology that builds 3D cell culture models.

Liver cells from patients with NASH form a tissue with more fibrosis than cells from healthy individuals and gene expression is differentially regulated. Genomic and proteomic research led to the identification of a promising target that Viscient is currently pursuing with medicinal chemistry efforts. Although one could use normal liver cells treated with toxic chemicals to make organoids with fibrosis and other characteristics of NASH, the model starting with NASH patients’ cells may resemble the pathophysiology of NASH more closely and, ultimately, be a better model of disease.

Jeffrey’s entrepreneurial journey became even more interesting when Organovo went through a company reset. Now Jeffrey leads the science both at Viscient and at Organovo, which focuses on intestinal bowel disease and other therapeutic areas. Interestingly, it may be possible to make organoids from pancreas, kidneys, or lungs. Viscient has 12 scientists in the SOVA district of San Diego, and the 8 scientists from Organovo will move to SOVA soon, allowing even a better collaboration between the companies.


Dr. Lada Rasochova

After spending years in the pharma and biotech industry, Lada went to academia to become the founding director of the Rady Venture Found at UCSD and the Executive Director of the California Institute for Innovation and Development. More recently, she decided to found Dermala, a consumer dermatology company for acne, eczema, and skin aging. Patients order the product online, use it for a month, and then provide feedback on use, efficacy, and adverse events via an app. This allows the company to optimize the formulation for a personalized treatment.

Dermala licensed a technology from UCSD and started from the hypothesis that microbiome dysbiosis causes skin disease. Connections made at Rady and networking helped with understanding the business, while microbiome research at JLAB led to the identification of interesting ingredients. Formulation and manufacturing followed to ensure that the final product was stable and had the appropriate characteristics of consistency, smell, color, etc. Finally, a double blind randomized clinical trial demonstrated superiority of the new microbiome-based product vs. a commercially available acne product. Dermala also collected data on ease of use and, as all data was positive, decided to launch. People loved the marketing campaign that featured a princess, and this helped spread the voice on social media. Now Dermala is focusing on growing their customer base with the ultimate goal of an exit.


Dr. Jeffrey Allen

Jeffrey’s entrepreneurial journey started from the death of his wife, who died of cancer 19 years ago. What really kills a cancer patient is not the primary tumor but the metastasis. In fact, current therapies target the primary tumor effectively, but metastasis are not treated. TumorGen is trying to change this by targeting the cluster of cells that are responsible for tumor spreading. While individual tumor cells that leave the tumor die off or are attacked by the immune system, clusters seem to evade this attack. Although the mechanism is incompletely understood, this may be due to the macrophages that are part of the cluster. In any case, when solid tumors form metastatic spheroids, survival is dramatically decreased. Jeffrey showed a very interesting video of metastatic spheroids captured with TumorGen’s chip. He ended his presentation by reminding the audience of the importance of motivation and personal traits. For example, he has learned over the years to become a “pseudo-extrovert”!

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