05 Feb 2019 | 09.10 pm
Therese Kinsella’s Skin In The Game
05 Feb 2019 | 09.10 pm
Biochemist Prof. Therese Kinsella has had a distinguished academic career. Now she’s making a sizeable personal investment in her life sciences startup, writes Darren O’Loughlin
ATXA Therapeutics is a UCD life sciences spinout with a niche product and big ambitions. Founded by Professor Therese Kinsella in 2015, ATXA is developing drug treatments for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a rare disorder causing high blood pressure in the blood vessels connected to and within the lungs.
PAH typically affects people who have existing heart or lung conditions and mostly affects young women. There’s no cure for PAH but the condition can be managed to improve life expectancy. ATXA Therapeutics is developing drugs that help to reduce the constriction of blood vessels characteristic of PAH, which causes the high blood pressure.
“Many of the existing drugs lack good efficacy or carry substantial side-effects,” says Kinsella (59). “While these drugs have improved patient survival from 2.8 years (untreated) to 3.6 years (treated), they do little to slow down or stem progression of the disease.”
Achieving success in the pharma sector is uncertain and a slog, with years of research, clinical trials and patenting involved. According to Kinsella, ATXA is the result of twenty years of lab research project to find more effective treatments for PAH and related conditions.
Prof. Kinsella’s venture is occurring at a stage in her life when many of her academic peers are looking forward to retirement. She graduated from UCC in 1981 and did postdoctoral research in Utah. She also worked in the US before returning to Ireland in 1992 to start teaching biochemistry in UCD. She was appointed to Associate Professor of Biochemistry in 2005.
Spinning out academic research into a business costs money, and though the ATXA Therapeutics venture has received generous funding from taxpayers through Enterprise Ireland, the founder has had to dig deep too. The company has received €300,000 from the state agency and between 2015 and 2018 Kinsella invested matched funding of €300,000 from her own resources.
Persistence through the early stage paid off recently when ATXA Therapeutics secured a commitment of €2.5m funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. The startup was one of only three Irish companies to do so in the latest funding round.
ATXA has plenty of road still to travel, without any guarantee of success, though Kinsella is taking an ambitious long view. “We plan to bring our product to market by 2026,” she says. “By 2030 we hope to have secured $750m in global sales and be employing circa 160 people in Ireland.” For the moment, the venture hopes to have ten people employed by the end of this year.
Prof. Kinsella explains ATXA Therapeutics’ plans and challenges in more detail below.
What were ATXA’s biggest challenges at the outset?
Initial challenges include securing seed funding to progress technology development. Other challenges include securing high-spec lab space, attracting the right people into the company and finding the right advisers. It’s also challenging to develop relationships with various external contract research organisations to which one can outsource various activities.
PAH is a niche condition. How will ATXA scale up?
Despite being classed as a rare or orphan disease, affecting approximately 15-50 patients per million of the population, PAH carries an enormous health burden, with an annual spend of up to $6 billion globally. While PAH is rare, the symptoms associated with it are also common to a number of other highly prevalent diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even asthma. Given the platform applications of ATXA’s drug, we believe it has blockbuster potential.
Was spinning out the research difficult?
It took around three months of negotiation with the technology transfer office at NovaUCD to spin out the company from UCD. Overall, the process was quick and efficient. Once ATXA was established, many business challenges emerged. You have to build the right team around you and find the right mentors and advisers, and you have to develop working relationships with a whole range of different experts and companies.
If you were to stop and think about all of the challenges ahead you might ask yourself, ‘Can I do it?’ But if you believe in your technology, your vision and business model, you forge ahead and knock the challenges off one by one.
Securing Horizon 2020 funding is no doubt welcome. Were you surprised at your success?
This was the first time ATXA applied under the scheme and we very fortunate to secure the €2.5m the first time around. The funding scheme is extremely competitive, an open call that goes across all industry sectors in Europe. The success rate is in the range 3-4% overall, so it really focuses and funds the top applications.
It took a considerable amount of time and effort to prepare and submit the application, and half-way through the process we decided to change tack and re-focus the application. That proved to be a very good decision, as our application was ranked in the top 1% of all applicants.
How have you approached the patents issue?
Constructing and drafting patent applications takes a lot of time, effort and thought and we are fortunate to work with an excellent patent lawyer in Boston on our patent estate. Filing patents is also very expensive and you need to plan for this from the get-go. To date ATXA has secured eight granted patents in Europe and USA and we are also going through the patenting process in other countries.
As a cost line item, patents are one of our biggest costs each year. However, the patent estate of any life science company is a key tradable asset so you have to give it the best support possible.
Your company has been backed by Enterprise Ireland. What additional government supports would benefit spinouts like ATXA?
There are a number of life sciences VC funds in Ireland that tend to support later-stage companies, which is good as a source of follow-on funding. However, there is a ‘valley of death’ for early stage VC funding. A fund of €100-200m dedicated to early-stage life sciences biotech and medtech companies would be a good start.
When we speak with international investors, they like to see a local fund invest alongside them.
Will the new Disruptive Technology Innovation Fund help?
The DTIF was launched recently to support SMEs with €20m in first-year funding and €500m over ten years. That scheme is a start, as it is open to all industry sectors and requires collaboration with a public research organisation or university. Many startups or spinouts may not necessarily need to have a PRO/university collaboration.
What investment incentives would you favour?
In the UK, for private individuals who invest in companies under the ‘knowledge box’ scheme, the initial £10m realised from a trade sale is tax free, whereas in Ireland it is only €1m. If you could invest €1m to €10m into a dedicated Irish life sciences VC fund and the initial 2-3x return was tax free, it might be just the type of incentive to attract more individual private investment.
Such an incentive might also attract private individuals with knowledge in the life sciences sector to get more involved. If the government were to ‘underwrite’ such private investment (e.g. 50%), it would be a good incentive too. Other countries have already done this.
What’s next for ATXA Therapeutics?
We want to bring our drug through Phase I, Phase II and Phase III clinical trials in patients with PAH, leading to regulatory approval in both Europe and the US. If funding permits, we also hope to test and validate our drug product in other disease indications where there are unmet clinical needs.
If we can deliver on this, there are some important value-inflection points along the way, including at the end of clinical trials. Our philosophy is simple: good companies are not sold, they are acquired. For now, we want to bring our drug through to Phase II clinical trials, regulatory approval and launch onto the global markets.
Pictured: Prof. Therese Kinsella: she invested €300,000 to lever matched funding from Enterprise Ireland