Two PhD Grads Leverage Years of Research and Startup Experience to Together Launch Ventrix Heart and Tackle Heart Failure

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Having met during their graduate program in bioengineering, Adam Kinsey and Karen Christman pursued separate careers following graduation: Adam went into industry and Karen continued on to become a professor. After years in biotech startups and research, the two launched Ventrix, combining their expertise and knowledge to tackle medium stage heart failure. We sat down with Adam to learn more about his journey and how Ventrix is filling a gap in the market.

Tell us about your background, especially about your with in biotech startups.

After I graduated with a degree in bioengineering from UC Berkeley and UCSF, I got job at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, working exclusively with biotech startups. They were very early stage startups, so I was conducting due diligence, developing IP strategies, and helping companies with their early strategy formation. The nice thing was that I got to see almost 50 startups a year and spend time working with them. I worked at Wilson for about four and a half years as a scientific advisor and patent agent, then from there, I started doing some in-house work on the IP side for a couple of startups in San Diego as a consultant. In the meantime, a friend and fellow UC graduate had an idea and we decided to start our own company.

What is it about startups and entrepreneurship in the biotech industry that has kept you in the space for so long?

In the early days I thought it was very interesting to see what’s next, what’s moving forward, and what’s up and coming from tech side of things. I also liked the idea of building something from the ground up; it’s interesting and a good challenge. The challenge of creating and building has kept me in the space for so long. I also enjoy the ability to make most of the critical decisions that lead the direction of the company.

Tell us about your co-founder.

Dr. Karen Christman and I were in the same graduate program and she’s now a Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and an Associate Dean of Engineering at UC San Diego. About a year after she started at UC San Diego, we began discussing the possibility of starting Ventrix with technology she was working on. She was on to the second or third generation of work that she started in grad school, work which became the foundation of her research lab at UC San Diego.

How did your company come to be?

Karen and I discussed some opportunities to share her technology with larger companies, but decided to start pursuing the creation of Ventrix. At that point, she got a grant through her lab from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation that allowed the translational development of product, and shortly after, we applied for SBIR funding from the National Science Foundation, which we were awarded in 2010. Then a year later we received another from SBIR grant, this time from NIH, so Ventrix essentially started with non-traditional financing. We definitely started the company pretty early in the tech development lifecycle.

What problem(s) are you tackling?

Ventrix is treating class 2 and 3 heart failure patients who don’t have a lot of options. Ventrix is specifically designed for endogenous heart repair and tissue engineering. We also are exploring other cardiovascular applications such as peripheral artery disease.

What product or service have you developed?

Ventrix is developing VentriGel which is derived from cardiac extracellular matrix, the complex mixture of proteins and sugars that surrounds and supports cells. It replaces the natural scaffolding that is degraded in the heart after a heart attack. Once injected into the damaged region via a minimally invasive catheter, it gels into a porous and fibrous scaffold to facilitate endogenous cell infiltration and repair.

What impact do you envision achieving?

We’re looking to improve heart failure outcomes and quality of life. Our first patient received treatment 2.5 years ago, and just recently we conducted our last patient visit for our first group of patients, fifteen in total who were treated little over a year ago. Now, we’re currently working on our Series B financing and gearing up for a larger clinical study. Pharmaceuticals are given to early-stage heart failure patients to reduce load on the heart, which has a significant impact on the disease. There are also many therapies that address final stages of heart failure, but there aren’t a lot of options that treat the in-between area: that’s where Ventrix comes in.

What is your business model?

Ventrix’s hydrogel will be delivered via catheter in an out-patient procedure in a cardiology lab. We’re currently preparing the product for our Phase 2 clinical study. We’ll then look for a strategic partner to push us towards widescale commercialization.

Basic roadmap and what the future holds.

Clinical trials are a mandatory part of bringing a product to market for our business (and for most in the bio or biotech industry). From a business standpoint, trials are about trying to get efficacy and safety information to  reduce risk as the product moves to market. In the future, we will most likely look to working with a larger company to sell the product at a commercial level.

Biggest challenges thus far and how you overcame them?

With developing a bio product or any therapeutic, timelines can be difficult to predict and maintain. As a small biotech company, you’re never bringing in revenue other than what you raise in investment, so it puts pressure on timeline and getting to the point where you bring in revenue. In biology, it’s common that things don’t always quite work as expected, so have to do your best to adapt timelines and finances as things change. We’ve focused on making sure that even if timeline gets pushed or something unexpected happens, we manage that in accordance with our current financing.

What awards or financing do you have or need?

We’ve won three SBIR grants and completed a Series A get Ventrix to this point, and we’re currently raising our series B of about $20 Million, which will be our second round of funding.

What resources within the UC system have been beneficial to you and why?

We’ve worked with UC San Diego and their technology transfer group, they’ve been helpful. UC San Diego has a lot of resources and the ability to perform the majority of our preclinical work in academia allowed us to de-risk our technology at significant cost savings. Overall, UC has a wide reach and has helped us with building some critical connections.

Do you have any patents?

Patents licensed from UC and from University of Pittsburgh and some other patents that we own issued in US, China, and Europe.

What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?

If you’re interested in starting a biotech company, take time to do the research before you start. Talk to as many people as you can, research your market, your potential product, your field, and don’t be afraid to go for it. Try to find financing from somewhere: there’s a lot of resources in the field, but they’re not easy to find, so take your time and don’t rush it, but also don’t hesitate if there’s an opportunity. Biotech is unique in that you likely have a lot of skill and education on your team, so it’s more about researching the technology and making sure the team works well together. From a personal standpoint, biotech entrepreneurship is a little less risky than some other businesses because you likely can’t personally fund a biotech company. Once ready, make connections and move forward.