Just like an Epi-Pen for Snake Bites.
Photo: Deepankar Roy (left), Daniel Dempsey, and Alexio Capovilla of Venomyx Therapeutics.
Snake bites are one of humanity’s oldest medical problems, but they’re definitely not a thing of the past—millions of people are bitten by poisonous snakes every year, and if they are lucky, those people are able to get medical attention quickly enough to not lose life or limb. The process of producing antivenom is outdated—it usually consists of injecting a horse or sheep with poisonous venom and harvesting the antibodies that the animal creates. Venomyx is using biotechnology to eliminate the use of animals from the process of producing antivenom, along with making it available in a portable, easy-to-use injector that makes it seem like the Epi-Pen for Snake Bites. We asked the company’s CEO, Daniel Dempsey, a few questions:
Tell me about your background, how did you get interested in the biotech space?
As cliche as it sounds, I got into biotech to make a difference in the world—specifically to make a difference in the lives of people. I went to school at UC San Diego and studied human biology as an undergrad and then autoimmune disease for my M.S. during grad school, I seized the opportunity to research infectious disease in the Costa Rican rainforest for a summer. It was there (surrounded by snakes) that I became familiar with the problems surrounding conventional antivenom and envisioned what modern biotech research could bring to this space. I returned to San Diego to work for big pharma developing drugs against cancer and inflammatory diseases. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something should be done for people that currently don’t have access to safe and effective antivenom so I studied it in my spare time. I finally decided that we were on to something that should be given a chance and quit my job, forming Venomyx in 2015.
What problem are you working to solve with your company, Venomyx?
We are working to make the world’s first recombinant antivenom that offers broad-spectrum treatment for bites from all medically relevant species of snakes.
Every year 5.5 Million people are bitten by venomous snakes. For the victims of snakebite, this results in disfigurement, disability, or death. Conventional antivenom has been able to approximate treatment of snakebite but is associated with limited efficacy, side effects, and a difficult production process.
Our antivenom is showing early preclinical success as a universal treatment for snakebite. It is a recombinant product which is manufactured at scale using microbial fermentation. The stability of our antivenom means that it does not require cold chain and will be available in the field for the first time ever.
If you could only pick one thing to validate your reason for forming a startup, what would it be? In other words, what would be the single biggest indicator to you that you are doing the right thing?
The entrepreneurial path is not an easy one—but I think that’s why we chose it. At some point, if it seems you have the ability to do something important, it becomes almost a responsibility to act. We’ve definitely received raised eyebrows from people in the past for what we are attempting to do; but we have also received support and encouragement from prominent opinion leaders of our space and that is the most validating of all. There have been many great minds who have dedicated their lives to studying snakes and their venom, so we hope to validate them by getting our solution to market and saving lives with it.
How do you think success can change your industry?
Our product will transform a very old industry that still relies on milking snakes and immunizing horses with the venom. We plan to manufacture our product overseas or license to overseas pharmaceutical companies who are already showing willingness to change. This will lead to a shift in local jobs from animal handling to biomanufacturing and, of course, spare great numbers of snakes and horses as a result.
How is your team uniquely able to tackle this? What’s the expertise?
Deepankar Roy, PhD
Alexio Capovilla, PhD
We each have experience in both research and business as it pertains to drug development. This strong base is then differentiated further where each of us is able to lend unique perspective in the areas of R&D, project management, business development, regulatory compliance, and commercialization. Our complementarity skills help tremendously with the decision making process of an early therapeutics company where important decisions are made daily.
Any big lessons learned transitioning to startup entrepreneurship?
Don’t sweat the small stuff—just keep moving forward. There are so many challenges encountered as a start up and not everything goes as planned. It’s important to stay diligent and stay on your path. I’ve looked back at some of the early setbacks we’ve had as a company and noticed that it’s par for the course and we’re always able to find a way through.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far?
I think there is an inherent challenge associated with operating in our space which is part of the reason there still isn’t a viable solution. Snake venom is a complex drug target and requires the same scientific diligence that you would employ with any other disease indication. Traditionally, pharma companies and investors have been hesitant to venture into a space that falls outside the more widely accepted investment areas. I think we are changing that. They are beginning to see the cost and regulatory advantages of our space and that it opens the doors for our future projects in bacterial antitoxins to combat antibiotic resistant strains which is a huge and growing market.
What are the big goals and milestones you’re looking to hit in the short term? Long term?
We are already showing neutralization of venom from multiple species of snake and plan to finish preclinical development and enter the clinic for Vipax Asia at the end of 2017. The acute nature of our trials combined with our qualification for fast track status means we can complete clinical trials and gain approval as early as Dec 2019. Once our clinical trials are underway we plan to shift focus to development of Vipax for our other three regions (U.S., Africa, South America) as well as our bacterial antitoxin programs.
Learn more about Venomyx by watching Daniel pitch on IndieBio Demo Day Feb. 9th! Register for the event or LiveStream here!