Ascending the Steep Slope of Preclinical Fundraising with Prolifagen

24 Feb

By Rory McCann, Marketing Manager & Conference Producer, LSN

The Innovator’s Pitch Challenge provides early-stage founders with a stage to pitch to a panel of investors who are a fit for their product and stage of development. Votes had been collected throughout the week of Digital RESI JPM for best pitch and marketing collateral. Coming in a close third place, Prolifagen stood out among pitching startups.  In the following interview, Co-Founder and CEO, Dr. Claudine Bruck introduces Prolifagen, its early days and lessons learned throughout their early-stage fundraising – some of which should ring true for many preclinical therapeutic startups.

Rory McCann (RM): Tell us a little about yourself and how you started your company.

Dr. Claudine Bruck (CB): A native of France, I grew up in Luxembourg and obtained my PhD in Biochemistry at University of Brussels in Belgium. After a postdoc in Immunology at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University in Boston, I joined the vaccine group of GlaxoSmithKline located in Belgium, where I was involved in HIV, Human Papillomavirus, and therapeutic cancer vaccine research. I then moved to join the therapeutics part of GSK in the Philadelphia area where I held various roles across therapeutic areas. For the last five years at GSK, I built and led a department developing medicines for ophthalmic diseases.

When I left GSK in 2015, I was determined to use my expertise in drug development to build a company developing an important medicine. I scoured the technology offices of East Coast academic centers for opportunities that were fitting my selection criteria:

  • Medicine should address an important public health problem.
  • Medicine should be based on a novel technology.
  • Candidate medicine should be supported by very solid scientific evidence.
  • Development path should allow early risk discharge points.

This led to the creation of Prolifagen in 2016, based on the collaboration of Professors Ed Morrisey and Jason Burdick at the University of Pennsylvania. The great collaborative spirit of those two researchers and their passion for their project were further determining (and energizing) factors.

RM: What have the early years been like? How did you approach early-stage fundraising and growth?

CB: My initial thoughts were that fundraising should be easy for a company developing such an innovative and important medicine. I used my network to contact prominent VC investors and did many pitches. I learned that in 2016-2017, VC investors were still wary of RNA-based technologies (until recent successes by Alnylam, the Medicines Company, and of course COVID RNA vaccines), of regenerative medicine (many stem cell-based approaches had failed, due to poor implantation of exogenous cells) and of cardiology (investment in cardiology companies was minimal over many years, leading to the current scarcity of companies in this area). The sweet spot for VC investment is also mostly after preclinical data are complete, and we needed to generate data in a costly pig model before a decision to move towards clinical trials. We were unable to convince VC investors to invest. Overall, it has been a steep learning curve.

RM: What were some tools and strategies that have helped you? What are some that you’ve learned from?

CB: We found that our best option was to obtain an SBIR grant from NHLBI, which we did, and which allowed us to reach a first milestone of showing cardiomyocyte proliferation in pigs. We learned what investors are interested in – this can evolve over time – and are in a much better position now. I have also benefited from my interaction with Springboard Enterprises, a group that helps women entrepreneurs by funneling them through a bootcamp where they have access to extremely knowledgeable advisors. My recommendation after this learning experience is that it is extremely important for CEOs to build and maintain a network of people who are willing to provide advice and information.

RM: Where is the company now and what is some advice you’d give to another founder who’s looking to get to where you are?

CB: We are currently raising funds for a costly pig cardiac infarct model functional study. My advice to other founders is to actively surround themselves with a network of people who are willing to provide advice in the areas where the CEO is not so knowledgeable. If the founder has a drug development expertise, they will need advice on the business side. If the CEO is from the business world, a lot of input on the technical side will be required.

RM: What’s on the horizon? What are you working on and where is the company headed?

CB: We are now actively engaged in fundraising. The timing is right for this for several reasons:

  1. There is renewed investor interest in RNA technologies and regenerative approaches, as well as in CV projects.
  2. We recently reached a major milestone confirming that the cardiomyocyte proliferation at the basis of cardiac regeneration in mice also translates into pigs.

This will allow us to now embark on functional studies in pigs which we expect to support a clinical development decision. Beyond establishing efficacy in pigs, the extent of benefit observed will greatly inform our clinical trial plan. The minimum seed funding for that step will be $1.8M. A total of $5M will required to bring us to IND.

Are you looking to get your startup and technology in front of investors who are a fit for your product and stage of development? Start these important conversations at Digital RESI March’s Innovator’s Pitch Challenge. The application deadline is tomorrow, Friday, February 25. Get yours in today!


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