DeciBio’s Women in Consulting group is continuing an initiative to interview women in positions of leadership. As part of this series, I had the opportunity to speak with Suchismita Acharya about her experiences starting AyuVis Research. AyuVis Research is a preclinical stage pharmaceutical company in Fort Worth, TX that focuses on the development of novel, multifunctional small molecules. You can find a transcript of our conversation below.
Suchismita Acharya, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of AyuVis Research. Before her time at AyuVis, she spent 11 years in various leadership roles at Alcon Labs and Novartis and spearheaded many projects in glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and anti-viral diseases. She is passionate about small molecule drug discovery with extensive experience in leading projects from early stages to clinical studies.
Just to begin, and for our readers who are less familiar with AyuVis, could you please share a bit about your vision for the company as well as your new therapy, which will be targeted first towards preterm infants with Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia?
Sure. Thank you for taking the time to learn about AyuVis. I’m really happy to share the work that we do. AyuVis Research is a pharmaceutical company in Fort Worth, Texas. We are pioneering a new generation of immunotherapies that modulate the innate immune system to control both hyper inflammation as well as eliminate microbial pathogens. These are multi-functional, small molecule compounds with excellent safety profiles. Our vision is to bring a unique solution for these preterm babies for whom there is no approved therapy from the FDA. We have just been approved for the orphan and rare pediatric drug designations for our lead compound for the prevention of Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia in at-risk infants by the FDA. Our objective is to go to clinic for a first-in-human clinical trial within the next 9 months, and our next goal is to see how we can help these babies to grow with a normal lung into adulthood. They have been born with a compromised and under-developed lung, and AyuVis aims to address this severe condition.
That’s what we are working on right now as our first orphan disease indication, and the company is quite young. Well— not that young. We are in our seventh year now, and we are progressing really well.
What an exciting opportunity. I know Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia is actually the number one leading cause of death for preterm infants. I can imagine how inspiring this would be to develop a therapy that could solve this issue and save so many lives. In fact, in an interview of yours, you highlighted that passion for the mission of the company has carried you through. What inspired you to start AyuVis and what drives your passion?
This is a good question. By training, I am a medicinal, pharmaceutical chemist, and I spent quite a number of years in the pharmaceutical industry. I spent over 11 years in big pharma—Alcon Labs as well as Novartis. My training is actually to create the small molecules and take them to the clinic, but talking about the passion and why I started the company—I would say—I watched one of our close friends as well as my close friend’s dad die with sepsis and lung disease. There was nothing to treat them, and it made me think, “Why don’t we create a solution or at least try to create one?” That was my passion— to think about how we can solve this problem in a unique way using some of the solutions that Mother Nature actually gave us, such as naturally derived oligosaccharides, which can be converted to a drug or a drug-like candidate. We initially figured things out from a published clinical observation. People who are infected with a condition called Lymphatic Filariasis are actually protected from any external microbial attack or severe infection and inflammation. I figured out that this is a unique area I could work on: to create some novel small molecules that can help decrease hyperinflammation, which is a very common pathological feature in several disease conditions.
Moreover, our series of compounds are derived from a natural food ingredient. So, it would be safe for adults and possibly for children. But a key question was: could we make this a very safe and feasible drug for infants? That was part of thinking about starting this company and filing the patent with the series of compounds and doing a medicinal chemistry campaign to turn a non-druggable oligosaccharide into an optimized druggable candidate. So, first, I watched my close relatives and friend die of inflammation and sepsis. Secondly, in terms of bronchopulmonary dysplasia, two of my close friends had babies born prematurely. I have seen firsthand how much struggle the parents went through early on with their child’s respiratory issues and some of their developmental delays. So, this is definitely something I am passionate about and has motivated me to carry on to find a solution.
What an inspiring story, thank you for sharing. I can see how this would really drive you and your work. Can you share with me a bit more about the process of transitioning from scientist to CEO? What has this journey been like?
I’m still a scientist even if I am the CEO and leading the company. I’m also the Chief Scientific Officer of the company. So, I’m a hybrid CEO. I am both managing the scientific part as well as the company’s business. It has been a huge learning process for me over the past seven years. I never imagined I’d be an entrepreneur, but I would say I have done well. I also have a faculty appointment at UNT Health Science Center here in TX, and I enjoy spending time educating/mentoring the new generation of research scientists/innovators.
It took me quite a while to come out of my comfort zone and be a business leader, which is something completely different from being a technical leader. I do think I have a great team. I’m a team maker. I believe in appreciating others’ work and I understand that the team is important. It takes a village to raise a child, and that’s what my concept is. So, I always hunt for good team members. I definitely had to wear multiple hats— when I was trying to build the company from scratch— raising funds and writing multiple federal grants to fund the company. Slowly, I think, I came across a lot of people like my ex-colleagues in pharma and the local entrepreneur incubator in Fort Worth that helped me find team members. I also took advantage of the mentoring and coaching programs at the business incubator that helped me grow from a scientist to a CEO. I have a knack for having a very open mind. I am always accepting of new ideas, challenges, and others’ advice. That’s the kind of thing I think is important: to keep your mind open to other people’s advice and to learn new skills in order to progress from where you are as well as to come out of your comfort zone and take the challenge.
Mentorship has been a prominent topic in the discussions thus far in this series. Have there been any key mentors that have significantly influenced your career path?
Well, absolutely. I would say I have had multiple mentors. If I really go back and look at how I have been influenced from being a scientist in the lab to creating something innovatively and taking leadership initiative— and as a challenge, then I would say I have been very fortunate to be mentored by one of my ex-supervisors and pharmaceutical scientists at Alcon who helped me think critically. He mentored me to be both a good and diligent scientist and at the same time pushed me to think innovatively with out-of-the-box ideas that could be patented. Later on, at AyuVis, we actually received a NIH business grant— NIH@ICorps. As part of that program, I had the opportunity to be mentored by pharma CEOs and venture capital partners as well as business experts from the University of Berkley and NIH. I also had great mentorship from my board and team members. They are experts in life sciences, not only in bringing a product to market, but they were also are a part of the VC community, and many are angel investors. They had already invested in several companies and nurtured them to grow and exit. I have definitely taken advantage of their mentorship and working with them to bring success to AyuVis.
Can you comment on some of the key resources available in academia to start companies like a university having an office of commercialization, SBIR grants—as you mentioned– NIH grants, or networking events?
Oh, absolutely. Talking about resources— there are definitely a lot of resources. Before somebody starts a company, he/she has to think about: “Where I’m going to incubate?” That point will come. Or, “Who are going to be my team members?” The first thing I did was apply for NIH’s SBIR grant—there are great resources that anyone can access through their website to learn more. They really guide you on how to access resources and apply for and write a grant. In terms of finding labs—for someone like me working in small molecule drug discovery– we definitely needed a chemistry lab, a biology lab, and a facility to conduct pre-clinical animal studies. There are universities that have accelerators or incubators, so one can partner with them and use their facilities rather than creating their own, which would take a lot of resources and expertise. When companies are ready to graduate and get out of the incubator, they can always then build their own lab. That’s not a big deal if the funding is available to them. There are a lot of resources in all towns and cities—some may have more or some have less– like California or the East Coast have more incubators. Dallas and Fort Worth are growing exponentially during the past 5-10 years and have really good resources for life science companies, so I am really happy about that. We have now UNT’s Health Sciences Center as our lab partner, which has very nice lab spaces, equipment, and animal facilities for companies like AyuVis. They also have an experienced lab manager onsite. Those are definitely things to keep an eye on— how a company in an early stage can benefit from the resources around it. Also— it’s not only scientific resources. We also tapped into the business incubators such as TechFW for the business side of science. We took advantage of free legal, patent, and corporate counseling office hours by being members of TechFW. The other most significant resource we came across through TechFW was our first dilutive fundraise from Cowtown Angel investors. All of these resources are available through their incubator programs so that companies may consider use at different stages of their growth.
One topic I’ve discussed in the past is that, according to a study done by MIT, female faculty in the science and engineering department participated in less than 10% of commercialization events between 2000 and 2018. Given your past in academia, what is your perspective on what could change this paradigm?
A lot of discussion is happening around this. I think it’s slowly changing. What I think more important is spreading the word and getting women more educated about this topic, so that they became aware of these events timely and more frequently, and plan ahead to attend. That’s one of the issues– I feel like a lot of women don’t get the same information or that the communication is not as great.
As you’re in the middle of a Series A round, what have been some of the most inspiring and encouraging aspects of this process seeking VC funding?
The most encouraging thing is that there is a lot of good advice I’m getting through this process and am learning a lot. I’m learning a lot about how we can improve— starting from our pitching styles, engaging with investors, and growing the network. This is just part of the package.
It’s huge progress from where we started a year ago to where we are now. The other thing I see is that there is a lot of interest in going after orphan diseases as well as the other side of it— women CEOs and entrepreneurs—some VCs are specifically focusing on this. Even if that number is less, I am glad to see that the system exists. There are a lot of networks and groups that specifically encourage female CEOs. This has been challenging, but it is fascinating to see that these things are growing.
That’s great to hear that that has been your experience, especially because in VC firms, only about 12% of people with decision-making power are women. Has this impacted your experience as a founder seeking funding?
I completely agree. That’s another side of the story. A lot of the decision-making ability seems to be structured in that way. There may just be more male colleagues in the company, and as you said, less than 10-12% of these people are women. What I came across is that a lot of the scientific analysts are women in the VC firms. That is a good representation, but there is still an imbalance that needs to be fixed. With time, people are slowly realizing that this imbalance could be shifted for a better outcome in making decisions on investments in the right assets. That is one challenge we always face. I have been directly told in the past by some of the VCs, “You won’t be able to raise any money,” and surely it was based on these different things like being a minority and a woman scientist. Inequality is always there, and I feel that. I went through that; I am going through that.
But—after a few calls, whether it’s a man or a woman, the questions always are: is the science good? Is the technology good? Does the person have the ability to drive the company’s goals and meet the milestones in a timely manner? Their attitude and vision seem to shift as discussions progress. So, it’s just a matter of time. The more I get the chance to talk to them—they see the reality in action. They realize that whether the leader is a man or a woman— this is a good investment opportunity.
I just believe in things like these: thinking positive, giving things more time, and not losing interest right away. Women have been living in this society and have been featured differently for many eras, right? So, it’s not that quick and easy to see the change. What I am very fascinated and excited to see is that there are a lot of women in many professions. We are trying hard to make it more impactful. For example, when I started my first job at Alcon, I was the only woman in my group. I did not realize that for the first six months, because it never crossed my mind and my colleagues were very open-minded. The way I grew up in my family– from childhood—I never felt that I should really consider feminism or male-female differences as a big deal. I rarely felt that way throughout my school or college days, or in my professional career. That part never crossed my mind, unless someone really asks me for my perspective. It’s not something I give a deep thought or importance.
What advice would you give to any woman– or any person for that matter– in your position about seven years ago, when you began your research, made this transition, and founded AyuVis?
My one advice is to follow one’s heart. If you are really passionate about anything, just go for it, and try hard to make it happen. If there is a will, there is always a way to do it. Harder problems will always come. You will see and you will hear a lot of “No, you can’t do it,” comments, but stay positive and things will fall into place. I follow this philosophy, and this is my best advice. I want to quote one thing here. “Remember when you see a person on the top of a mountain that he or she didn’t fall there. Rather, they climbed the whole way.”
I love that philosophy. Do you have any final thoughts about AyuVis, your mission, or this topic in general, to conclude this interview?
One last thing I would say about AyuVis—this is a mission we took in order to help the larger community and specifically the parents of these tiny, premature babies. This is not just about the progress of a scientific project or about raising and managing money. It has a larger vision: to bring a unique solution to humanity. I think we all at some level think like that in a philosophical way—in everybody’s lives, whatever we are doing— we all are contributing someway to that. If we keep doing that with a pure and clear vision, maybe everybody will be able to achieve what they’re thinking. I hope AyuVis can bring a disruptive change and contribute to the larger cause.