Professor Joel Collier on stage, pointing toward data on a large projectoin screen. Audience members' heads in the foreground.

Duke Companies and Faculty Share Ideas with Investors at Triangle Venture Day

More than 50 investors came to learn about new drugs and therapies

“I am very excited about our second regional venture day with our colleagues at UNC, NC State, and NCBiotech,” said Jeff Welch, director of Duke New Ventures. “We had several dozen venture capitalists fly in from out of state. There were potential new company CEOs looking to meet technical founders and excellent presentations from our inventors or executive management.”

Six Duke companies and faculty presented.

Co-Founder Zac Elmore, Ph.D. presented Lucidigm Therapeutics, a seven-month-old company spun out of Duke that is using engineered enzymes to modulate immune responses. They are seeking seed funding to develop highly specific enzymes that could be helpful in preventing transplanted organ rejection, improving gene therapy and treating autoimmune diseases. Lucidigm has used data-mining and training algorithms to discover new enzymes that precisely target immunoglobulins IgM and IgG, which are types of antibodies that orchestrate immune responses. In the discussion of first in class versus best in class, "we are both,” Elmore said.

CEO and founder Jason Kralic, Ph.D. presented for Tellus Therapeutics, a spinout built on Duke work that is devoted to care for neonatal infants. Their first potential product has grown out of the research  of Duke neonatologist Eric Benner, M.D., the George W. Brumley, Jr. M.D Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, who identified a factor in human breast milk that helps a baby’s brain develop myelin and connectivity. Having secured a $35 million Series A round from Xontogeny and Perceptive Advisors at the end of last year, the company is preparing for clinical trials to test these compounds, called oxysterols, as a treatment to prevent brain injury and cerebral palsy in premature babies. Such injuries  result in an average lifetime medical cost of $1.3 million per cerebral palsy child. Kralic said there are many other possible treatments ahead for this group of patients who, until now, have been largely neglected by the therapeutics market.

Aravind Asokan, professor of surgery and surgical sciences, was invited to share his team's latest work on editing RNA. (Sasha Campbell, NCSU)

Joel Collier, Ph.D.,  the Theodore Kennedy Professor of Biomedical Engineering, introduced an unnamed new company that has developed a nanofiber drug delivery system for fighting urinary tract infections. Placing the tablet under one’s tongue leads to the delivery of a targeted attack on UTI-causing bacteria that should control 80 percent of UTIs without harming the rest of a person’s microbiome the way conventional antibiotics do.

Amanda Hargrove, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry, has developed a platform that combines a proprietary library of small molecules that target RNA, function-based assays, and machine learning to enable rational design of drugs for RNA. With a platform that “improves itself every time an RNA goes through it,” she said her technology will enable rational drug design even when the structure of a drug target hasn’t been figured out. Such small molecule drugs might be used to interfere with RNA function or break apart the long RNAs that are involved in driving cancer. Her new company, formed with Duke New Ventures mentor-in-residence Fran Martin, has no name yet.

In addition to companies that had solidified to the point they needed funding, the session also included two Duke faculty who have slightly more embryonic ideas, but have started other companies in the past.

The first presenter of the day was Pranam Chatterjee, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering who joined the university last year after completing his graduate studies at MIT. His lab spotlight was a whirlwind tour of work on using artificial intelligence to help design proteins with the goals of inducing stem cell formation and editing the proteome, the body’s entire collection of proteins. “Proteins are a language,” he said, and an AI language model of proteins is a real possibility.

Jeff Welch, head of Duke New Ventures, chatted with Vivian Doelling of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. (Shasha Campbell, NCSU)

Aravind Asokan, Ph.D.,professor in surgery and surgical sciences, shared work his lab is doing toward editing RNA before it reaches its messenger form. Using a strategy called RAFT – RNA Assisted Fragment Trans-Splicing – Asokan’s technique would lead to correcting the patient’s own RNA for therapies by rewriting large stretches rather than fixing single-point mutations. 

“Now the hard work starts,” Welch said. “We’ll follow up and see if we can get the right funding and right people together to capitalize on momentum and get great new enterprises off the ground and running.”