EpiAxis Therapeutics is channeling its success at BioPharm America™’s Startup Day into success at the business and scientific levels. Since finishing first for best “investment pitch quality and effectiveness” and second for “overall business plan effectiveness and investability,” the company has expanded its clinical program and closed a follow-on round of financing while continuing to develop novel first-in-class inhibitors.
Founded in December 2015, the company grew from more than a decade of research conducted in the lab of Professor Sudha Rao at the University of Canberra. She and her team identified the role of the nuclear bound lysine-specific demethylase 1 (LSD1) and its upstream regulator, the theta isoform of protein kinase C (PKC theta) in the proliferation of circulating tumor cells and cancer stem cells. Those cells are believed to lead to the recurrence of metastatic breast cancer in patients who have been treated.
EpiAxis scientists are furthering that work by developing novel peptide and small molecule inhibitors against those targets. The goal is to prolong tumor remission and prevent the recurrence of metastatic cancer. A proof of concept has already been demonstrated in an animal model.
Where is EpiAxis today?
Activities today are concentrated around conducting two early phase clinical trials and developing novel inhibitors against LSD1.
A non-interventional study of patients with metastatic breast cancer is underway to monitor the circulating tumor cell burden. “We had to first develop a method to allow us to correctly monitor the circulating tumor cell burden from a liquid biopsy. From a translational perspective, this was one of our most notable achievements,” says CEO and serial entrepreneur Jeremy Chrisp, PhD. Ultimately, this assay may enable early detection and intervention for recurrent cancers.
Another study—this time interventional—has just been approved. It will be EpiAxis’ first study to treat patients with a combination of an epigenetic inhibitor and Abraxane®. The study will also evaluate the immune response following combination therapy.
In parallel, earlier-stage work continues to enhance EpiAxis’ first-in-class, novel non-catalytic peptide inhibitors. These inhibitors interact with a novel nuclear pocket that controls entry of the LSD1 enzyme into the cell’s nucleus.
Extensive animal studies investigating the combination of an epigenetic inhibitor with a chemotherapy agent suggest the combination triggers a durable immune response of both the innate and adaptive arms, leading to a reduction in the primary tumor burden. “This is likely to be a significant advancement,” he says. The next milestone for this program is to select and optimize a lead candidate from the portfolio of eight assets and advance it through preclinical development. “We want to complete this by 2018.”
The initial disease focus for all of these programs is metastatic breast cancer. Eventually, the work may expand to address other cancer stem cell-mediated diseases, such as ovarian, pancreatic, colon, melanoma, lung and liver cancers.
EpiAxis has a strong patent family. It holds an exclusive license from the University of Canberra, where the company is based. “We have research and clinical labs there, and are working with medical oncologists from The Canberra Hospital,” Dr. Chrisp says.
Gaining an edge
The high finishes—first runner up for best pitch and second runner up for most investable company—have each enhanced the company’s visibility. “Emerging companies in highly competitive spaces need to stand out, and this gave us an edge in discussions and an enhanced profile on our web site.”
Affirmation by judges at Startup Day at BioPharm America and at the Startup Slam at BIO-Europe® 2016 in Cologne “made our communications story much more succinct. It now resonates with potential investors and collaborators,” he says. “It’s hard to link the results of the contest to specific events, but success breeds success.”
For example, the company just closed a financing round for more than AUD 500,000, raised from ANU Connect Ventures Pty Ltd and from other Canberra-based investors who have been following the company. EpiAxis also is in talks with potential collaborators. While the funding and conversations probably would have occurred anyway, positive results from high profile conferences are points in EpiAxis’ favor.
Winning confers benefits beyond visibility, too. A Johnson & Johnson (J&J) mentorship was the prize for the “best investment” win at BIO-Europe 2016. “J&J gave us a written review of our program,” Dr. Chrisp says. Now when we meet J&J representatives at other conferences, they already know us, and that’s helpful. It helps us stand out from other companies.”
There was tremendous range of styles in the pitches presented during Startup Day at BioPharm America 2016, Dr. Chrisp recalls. “Our clarity of message is what presumably set us apart from the competition in the pitch contest. Many presenters arguably focus too much on the science but, at this stage, the audience will generally accept that the science is true.”
He advises startup companies to focus their pitches to investors by stating the problem, how they can solve it and how they differ from the competition, identifying the risks along the way and how these will be mitigated before getting to the next inflexion point.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is to ask for investors’ support. “A pitch also needs to have an ‘ask’” he says, “and presenters need to explain how that money would be spent. What you do, why your product is different, what it will achieve and how the money will be used are the key points to make, all in three minutes.”
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