By Scott Meacham
When Younghwa “Henry” Shin, Ph.D., a co-founder and CEO of Excitant Therapeutics entered graduate school at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC), his interest was neuroscience. Then, during a year of rotation structured to give students a taste of different projects and specialties, he was assigned to Dr. Jian-Xing (Jay) Ma’s lab in physiology that was doing eye research.
“Life takes you to interesting places,” Dr. Shin told me. “I never imagined myself falling in love with eye research — but I did. By the end of graduate school, I wanted to engage more closely with bench-to-bedside for people with visual impairment .”
Dr. Shin’s post-doctoral fellowship at OUHSC laid the foundation for Excitant Therapeutics, the company he co-founded with Drs. Jay Ma and Adam Duerfeldt, to commercialize the technology licensed from OU. Excitant is developing therapeutic agents for ophthalmic diseases with a focus on diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, and age-related macular degeneration.
Recently the startup was awarded a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to conduct critical experiments for pre-clinical evaluation of the lead candidate for diabetic retinopathy. Attaining the SBIR funding — the National Eye Institute, a department of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was the granting agency — is a powerful validation of Excitant’s approach.
That approach came from two large independent clinical trials that tested a drug therapy to reduce cardiovascular risk in Type II diabetic patients. The therapy didn’t work well for cardio; however, there was a secondary implication in the studies—a robust effect on diabetic retinopathy.
“That’s where a light bulb turned on,” said Dr. Shin. Entrepreneurship, like scientific discovery, is full of surprises—moments when the experience is like stepping on a rake and getting banged across the forehead.
“I made a roadmap for my business,” Dr. Shin said, “and I expected my business to go the way I imagined it. Thinking back, it’s almost laughable how naïve that was. New problems kept popping up around almost every corner I turned; changes in contract terms, unexpected termination of a deal, equipment failure, and so on. I must say I had a steep learning curve as a scientist venturing into entrepreneurship.”
The support he has received from other professors at OU who have gone down the entrepreneurial path has helped him navigate.
“I am fortunate to be around OU professors who have been collegial and friendly,” Dr. Shin said. “They have provided learning resources and consulting. Other local resources such as i2E, OU’s Office of Technology Development, Tom Love Innovation Hub and Oklahoma Christian University have all been integral to materializing Excitant Therapeutics.”
It is always a moving target, keeping science advancing from the lab toward becoming breakthrough therapies for patients and blockbuster exits for bioscience startups.
Excitant Therapeutics’ path is a real-time example of how the people and organizations in Oklahoma put their collective shoulders to the wheel to move our state’s groundbreaking medical research from lab to commercialization.
The process isn’t for the faint-hearted, but then we aren’t a faint-hearted 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