By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2019, The Oklahoman
It’s really difficult to invent new drug therapies.
Research and development can take decades. Once a potential drug appears viable, testing for safety and efficacy adds more years. At every stage, risk of failure is extreme.
Ascend BioVentures, a pharmaceutical accelerator company, helps Oklahoma’s early stage therapeutics advance through the riskiest early stages of development. A subsidiary of i2E, Ascend leverages the team at i2E for venture and investment services, as well as operational support.
Leadership is critical to a venture like Ascend. With 10 years of professional leadership in the commercialization of early stage pharmaceutical therapeutics and diagnostics, Ascend CEO, Dr. Elaine Hamm understands this world inside and out.
After earning her Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Oklahoma and creating a technology that was licensed, Dr. Hamm worked at a startup as a chemist and then advanced to licensing newly created drugs to companies. Following a stint at i2E as a venture advisor, she held senior management positions at several early stage drug companies.
“When asked to start Ascend, I knew I wanted to create something different,” Dr. Hamm said. “There are many models for accelerator programs; we wanted to find the right model for Oklahoma’s ecosystem. Ascend doesn’t have a one-size fits all approach.”
Not every technology needs to become a company. Sometimes a new drug just needs a couple of experiments to move it forward, and Ascend can help with that. When a new company is formed, Ascend identifies the right path and the right leadership for each new drug. In this, Ascend’s diverse external Advisory Committee plays a key role. Advisory Committee members range from life science investor groups to executives and business develop leaders from both mid-sized and large pharmaceutical companies.
“They ensure we select good technologies and that we provide industry validation,” said Dr. Hamm. “Members can be also involved downstream, from licensing, to investing, to serving in management or on the board of one of our startups. In fact, the CEO of our first company, Kirrhos Pharmaceuticals, was on the Advisory Committee.”
The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OU), Presbyterian Health Foundation, and OMRF (Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation) are Ascend community partners and ready sources of new science. In the last six months, Ascend has reviewed more than 15 technologies from OU alone.
“We provide the business case for a new drug. Everything from marketing information, recommendations on industry-based experiments, patent and regulatory strategies, and more,” Dr. Hamm said. “Sometimes Ascend and the Advisory Committee says no, and here’s why. That can be the most helpful advice.
Ascend also seeks technology from across the U.S. and even the world.
“There is never a shortage of technology,” said Dr. Hamm. “There are folks on the east and west coasts who are finding it hard to find support and raise funds. We are finding technologies that are being overlooked on the coasts that we can bring back to Oklahoma and develop here.”
Ascend BioVentures is yet another example of Oklahoma’s leadership in biosciences and life sciences. It’s a key competitive advantage for our state.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org