AMHERST, Mass. – Ernest Pharmaceuticals, a startup venture based in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), is one of four companies to win $2,500 from the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) in a business pitch poster competition in Boston. This recognizes the groundbreaking young biotech firm as it brings its research on programmed bacteria that deliver anticancer treatment to tumors from labto market.
Ernest Pharmaceuticals CEO and bioengineer Nele Van Dessel presented the poster at MTTC’s 12th annual Massachusetts Life Sciences Innovation Day; the company was one among 30 vying for four prizes. She says she and co-founder Neil Forbes, a professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst, believe the company’s association with IALS at UMass Amherst has been a crucial factor in its steady success.
“We showed up three years ago at IALS with good science but no business plan,” Van Dessel says. Speaking of the IALS Venture Mentoring team, she says, “They showed us how to start speaking to business, to identify our market.” The biotech entrepreneurs also learned how to identify the most effective cancer target type, how to apply for grants and how to help their treatment reach patients sooner. “Basically we went from speaking to scientists to pitching to investors with a business deck,” she notes.
Further, IALS’ strategic planning, technology transfer and other business services such as developing conflict of interest and research and compliance guidelines have been essential for the development of Ernest Pharmaceuticals. Van Dessel points out. “On the science side we were good, we just needed help on the business side, and IALS came through. Where there’s a need they can help you with, they will. We’re very grateful.”
The recent poster pitch competition pitted Ernest Pharmaceuticals against impressive startups from Harvard, MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, among others. “It was another important foray for the company into the Boston biotech and pharmaceutical environment,” says Van Dessel. “It’s all about networking and finding who is interested in investing in you. We just have to find the right partners.”
Working on the UMass campus in the IALS collaboratory space has provided valuable savings to the small startup with its two employees, she points out, by offering lower-cost lab and office space, plus access to state-of-the-art technical facilities and high-quality instruments.
Van Dessel, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering at home in Belgium, came to UMass Amherst looking specifically for Forbes after she read all his published papers on what she calls his unconventional but effective use of Salmonella bacteria to deliver cancer-busting compounds to kill metastatic breast cancer tumors from inside. Forbes named the company after his grandfather Ernest, who died of prostate cancer.
Since co-founding Ernest Pharmaceuticals with Forbes, Van Dessel has talked with a large number of oncologists to learn where the greatest need is in cancer treatment today, in particular which metastatic diseases are the hardest to treat. In this way, she and Forbes identified “an urgent need” for new tools to treat metastatic liver, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. “So we broadened our approach and went after federal funding to specifically address those.”
Also benefiting from the UMass Amherst-IALS Business Innovation Fellows program, Ernest and three other campus startups received Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health in 2018, bringing them in to this year with significant funding, Van Dessel reports. “So now we are looking to raise $1 million to focus on bacterial strain development, for a safe and effective bacteria to deliver to target tumors.”
“We don’t have a product to sell yet,” the CEO says. “We need to do our preclinical testing to reach an IND filing with the FDA, but we’re well on our way.”
Vinit Nijhawan, MTCC interim executive director, said that MALSI Day is the signature event for life sciences startups and innovation in the Commonwealth, bringing together scientific leaders, professors, entrepreneurs, innovators and venture capitalists. Judges in the poster competition considered such factors as commercial viability and team strength. “The breadth of the posters received and the strength of the winning projects demonstrates that Massachusetts continues to lead the nation in bringing research to market,” Nijhawan said.
IALS director Peter Reinhart says, “I am delighted that Ernest Pharmaceuticals, an innovative startup advancing their novel oncology drug delivery platform with technology licensed from UMass Amherst, won the poster competition in a strong collection of emerging companies.”
Hosted at the UMass President’s Office, MTTC enables public and private research universities and medical centers in Massachusetts to lead the nation in translating basic research to the market, creating jobs and spurring economic development.