Gina Devasahayam, Ph.D. is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of GenetikSIGNAL, Inc.
Interview by Lawrence Jones
Which division of the University did you all graduate from? Please describe for the readers what the INNoVATE program was?
“JHU Carey INNoVATE Cohort 2012. The INNoVATE™ Program was an intense training and technology commercialization course which required a full academic year to complete through the Carey Business School at the Rockville, Maryland campus. The intent of the program was to increase the quantity and quality of entrepreneurs in the region capable of starting companies based in technology and the sciences. The model matched pre-selected technology with highly capable individuals who wanted to be entrepreneurs, and provided skill training, mentoring, and access to specialized resources held at the Johns Hopkins Rockville Campus.”
Please describe your current position(s) and your roles in GenetikSIGNAL, Inc.
“I am fulfilling a dual role as CSO/CEO, I scout the latest biotechnologies out there in the anti-aging field and vet the Intellectual Property (IP) to determine if there is scope for development at GenetikSignal. I build the team, I have recruited the Board of Directors and Scientific Advisors. I am also involved in capital raise and pitching the idea to investors.”
How has your JHU Carey INNoVATE training prepared you for the path you have chosen?
“I was asked to join this program by the then Executive Director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center Dr. Judy Britz who herself has been a successful CEO of at least two biotech companies. By that time I had gotten inside the Maryland entrepreneurial network! I had pitched at Maryland Biotechnology Center in November of 2011 and Dr. Britz was going to a trip to India with the Governor on a biotechnology trade mission along with other prominent biotech executives from Maryland. The Program has taught me the ABCs of lifescience/biotech entrepreneurship, from IP evaluation, building a team and team playing, networking skills (I have evolved to become extroverted from being a bit introverted in my scientist days), asking for money, leadership, being a protégé. For me- it has been about personal and professional growth, or growth-spurt or home-grown, if you will say that. I met like-minded individuals like Lawrence (the interviewer) at INNoVATE 2012 who believe that you can be broke but happy and it is a painful yet joyful journey.”
Why did anti aging research top your list for creating GenetikSIGNAL, Inc.?
“When we, the students at INNoVATE were making our pitches, we networked with Maryland’s entrepreneurial network and I was introduced by Dave Fink, one of my entrepreneurial mentors to Dr. Ben Arthur, an accomplished venture capitalist. Dr. Arthur was interested to hear my pitch and we talked and I made him the first Director of GenetikSignal, Inc. One of the applications of the mTOR technology (mTOR is a molecular signature that is nutrient responsive and was originally discovered by David Sabatini in his graduate/medical school days at Hopkins and was found to be involved in cancer and the aging process; Sabatini now has a lab at MIT) that I was toying with was anti-aging. Ben became interested in the anti-aging aspect for the consumer market. At the time, we were thinking of entering the cosmetics market with novel anti-aging cosmeceutical ingredients. I was also talking to my peer Matt Kaeberlein at University of Washington, Seattle and I introduced Ben to him. Matt had some IP on anti-aging and mTOR. One thing I have admired about UW is that they licensed the technology to GenetikSignal easily, consistent with being one of the top University licensor’s in the country. At the time I was on the VC raising campaign, invited to speak at the World’s Best Technology Innovation marketplace Summit in San Diego, in October 2012.”
How important has mentorship been for your team in the beginning, now, and the future?
“It has been the most important factor. For me, I am an excellent protégé and I have sought mentors from the beginning of my graduate career in New York since 1996 and those are relationships that never end. During my career, I met a biotech entrepreneur in California in 2007- Dr. Francis Burrows and I was thrilled at the success and at that time his biotech startup Conforma was acquired by Biogen-Idec and I was impressed by their impeccable diversity. I remember I asked Francis during dinner why Conforma was acquired but did not go public? I will not tell you what he told me. (Laughs) Francis later in 2011 helped me found GenetikSignal (he also has a biotech consulting service). My peer group included Marco Biamonte, from the scientific staff at Conforma, who took the entrepreneurial plunge by founding the DDTD (Drug Discovery for Tropical Diseases) in 2011. I followed suit and I founded GenetikSignal. Not because of Marco, though he is Swiss. (Laughs) Marco and I are recession-era entrepreneurs, like my INNoVATE classmates. My entrepreneurial ideas developed while I was a postdoc at University of Virginia founded by Thomas Jefferson, the founding father of America. The name GenetikSignal is because of my association (from UVA) with our Swiss collaborators (Michael Hall’s Lab) in Basel, Switzerland who worked on mTOR molecular signaling. Now, I have Dr. Robert DeJager on the Board of Directors also, colleague of Francis, and he is a clinical expert. Ryan Van De Water, my chemist co-founder isalso from Conforma and is based in San Diego. The entire faculty staff at INNoVATE are my mentors. I got to know Dr. Christine Copple who is a serial bioentrepreneur and investor and she was successful at publicly traded Neuralstem as COO. I was introduced to Dr. Martha Knight by Judy and Martha has been a successful peptide chemistry entrepreneur from the 1980s. Her work with peptides inspired many and now, dozens of scientists visit enhancedpeptides.com to buy peptides and conduct their own experiments in their labs. I know Dr. Brinda Wiita, former Executive Director at Johnson & Johnson consumer products, from connecting with Johnson & Johnson Innovation at the WBT marketplace in San Diego. My mentors, they are all trailblazers in their own right.”
What was a key and pivotal step in getting GenetikSIGNAL, Inc. to this stage (scientifically and financially) where you are?
“I would say it is my evolution and resilience. In my career, as a woman, I have been hit more than once. I am not a woman who can be on a stereotypical husband and wife team- I have high ambition and I am a high achiever. Because I do not conform to that stereotype in the biotech/lifesciences profession, I have faced bankruptcy. I have walked the path alone and evolved. I have support from my family (my parents) and my close women friends in DC and NY regions, and in India. I took 2014 off to spend with my parents in India. According to legendary baseball player Babe Ruth “It’s hard to beat a person that never gives up”. That tenacity has to drive you, if it does not, you got to fold your cards. I have seen such tenacity before. I interviewed at Microbia, Inc. a biotech startup in Cambridge, MA in 2006 founded by MIT postdocs and they started off with trying to discover an antifungal drug (which is what I studied in New York) and they failed in animal testing. They re-strategized their business. They had a core precision engineering business in which they were engineering microbes to produce biotech products. They had other discovery programs and eventually they discovered Linzess, FDA approved for Gastro-intestinal disease and they have re-branded themselves as Ironwood Pharma and have gone public. Such innovative culture is key to commercializing technology in the U.S. and that is a culture I will create at GenetikSignal. I have two opportunities at present – 1) bio-prospecting of novel ingredients from a unique bioresource and collaboration with a German based biotech small business, 2) novel compounds for development in partnership with a prominent aging biologist and University in Boston. These collaborations will unfold this year for GenetikSignal.”
If any of our readers reading are interested in creating a biotech company do you have any preliminary suggestions?
“Surround yourself with the best. You want your boss/mentor to allow you to grow, and give you opportunities. If not, quit that job. Take calculated risks. Pursue your passions and what is in your heart. It is a rat race out there with the 9-5 workforce jumping from one job to the next with a salary figure in mind. Most people are happy with the money, politicians want money and power, founder CEOs want neither.”
What do you consider is fundamentally different about the biotech industry landscape for anti-aging when you first conceived of GenetikSIGNAL, Inc several years ago compared to now?
“This is a very interesting question. You are asking me what my vision has been! There is a vast proportion of people who want to age healthy, for example the baby boomer population. That began as long ago as the 1970s when healthfoods became a culture. At first, I was drug target focused on mTOR. The IP we were evaluating on anti-aging from UW, Seattle were methods patents. I had discussions with most top consumer companies in the country, and one in India. I was unable to create a market for it. The technology was top-notch but market/translational risk was high. I talked to L’Oreal for some time, we entered into NDA, but L’Oreal backed off. In biotech, offering a Contract Research service is not a great business model today. L’Oreal was not convinced that testing their skin cosmeceuticals in a yeast aging assay will be relevant for their skin anti-aging R&D. In 2014, Calico (short for California Lifesciences company) entered the anti-aging biotech arena, backed by Google ventures and partnering with Abbott. They are discovering drugs for age-related diseases. I am focused now on compounds (composition of matter IP), not exactly for drug development but more for dietary supplements/ nutraceuticals such as elderberry vitamin c capsules. I am open to explore any aging pathway involved in caloric restriction, not just constrained to mTOR.”
Where do you see biotech heading in five years as it relates to anti-aging pharmaceuticals and medical research?
“I see two points, 1) most people are uneducated about dietary supplements, nutraceuticals, nutricosmetics, cosmeceuticals etc. and do not know how to incorporate it in their lifestyle, for example the probiotics field- most people don’t know what this is and the pioneers in the field have the concept that all ills can be cured with creating a healthy microflora in the gut and have a purpose of educating the consumer, and 2) we don’t have to discover the “fountain of youth” or an “anti-aging pill” . In point one, I have interest in creating a e-health platform on nutritional counseling which is a business model that is not out there. In point two, like critics have asked what sort of clinical trial will we conduct for increasing longevity or healthspan for an entire lifetime in people? We would target age-related diseases and conduct trials in healthy populations for a short but significant period (for dietary supplements) or in the patient population (for medical foods or drugs). I am a proponent of natural and organically derived/ non-GMO health foods such as dietary supplements for healthy lifespan as well as synthetically modified drugs for cures of age-related diseases. I think the future should be a balance of the two.”
Johns Hopkins has traditionally been a leader in medical innovation, what is your perspective of the future of JHU entrepreneurial innovation’s momentum in the upcoming years?
“While I was taking the INNoVATE Program in 2012, I lived in Baltimore city in the Hampden area and I was vetting an IP at the Hopkins Medical School on a breast anti-cancer drug target potentially in the mTOR molecular pathway. Interestingly, I asked their technology transfer to file a provisional patent for me because I knew their technology licensing person from graduate school at SUNY, Albany (small world!). I don’t think MIT would file IP for me (I did ask them once). (Laughs) I was very much interested in the Hopkins target because just at the time Novartis was moving forward with approving rapamycin analogs for breast cancer. One thing that impeded me because of the early stage of the R&D was lack of seed funding within Hopkins (even though it is a private institution). I have appreciated their tech transfer team all the way to the Senior Entrepreneurial Advisor for the President of the University for being forthright with me. Even though Hopkins attracts the highest R&D dollars from federal and private funding sources for academic research, their translational research is a bottleneck. If you walk east from the Medical School, you can see the dilapidation and low economic power of Baltimore City. The economic growth and prosperity in those neighborhoods is something Hopkins has failed to create even though it attracts the highest dollars in funding in the country and is the biggest employer in the city. This is the challenge for them. This is a promise that remains unfulfilled.”