The “valley of death” in the biomedical industry is what keeps Dr. Jack A. Elias up at night.
A former dean of medicine at Brown University and department chair at the Yale School of Medicine, Elias believes the United States does a “bang-up job” spending billions of dollars through the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and private foundations to support medical research. But after a research team or university makes a ground-breaking discovery, Elias says the country doesn’t do nearly as well getting a therapeutic out of a lab and directly to patients. That middle ground is where drugs, treatments, and therapeutics — which could be life-changing for patients — get stuck in what’s called the “valley of death.”
“Universities all over the country receive funding through the NIH and then have these tremendous therapies sitting on the shelves, collecting dust,” Elias explained in a recent interview. “No one has helped the investigators take those discoveries and move them into the entrepreneurial space.”
“You get tired of giving the same treatments to patients that you gave 20 years ago knowing it didn’t work back then [because] you don’t have a new treatment,” added Elias.
It’s what motivated Elias to found Ocean Biomedical, a preclinical biotech company known as Brown’s first bioscience “spinoff” that would help move therapies off lab shelves and into the private sector. The company, which was founded in 2019 and is based in Providence, was listed on the NASDAQ under the symbol OCEA. On Feb. 16, Elias rang the bell at the NASDAQ.
Q: You’ve repeatedly said over the years that you’d want future medical deans at Brown to be able to look out their window and see a “sea of biomedical” companies in the Jewelry District. After nearly four years of building Ocean Biomedical in Rhode Island, how attainable is that?
Elias: I’m still a passionate believer that we can get there. But it takes growth at Brown, a culture change at Brown ― a lot of that has already begun. It’s seeing itself more as a research-focused international university rather than a New England college. But it needs the public sector, the mayor, the governor, and the infrastructure for a life sciences economy so that people can come, form a company, and keep a company rather than saying “there’s no place for me to set up my research. There’s no place for me to do any experiments or acquire patients.” All of that exists in Boston. So anytime I hear about a company moving to Boston from Providence, I feel like we’ve lost something.
How does Rhode Island get there?
We all have to work together to get there. In order to do that, we need to make sure that the burn rate for a company [in a startup, that means the rate in which a new company is spending its venture capital in order to fund overhead before it generates positive cash flow from operations] is acceptable so that it’s actually financially better off opening a company in Providence rather than competing for the limited space that’s available in Kendall Square [in Cambridge, Mass.].
There’s some political appetite from leaders — such as Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi — to create a quasi-public life sciences and biotech hub focused on building an industry. What immediate challenges will they face?
More lab space. I know Brown is having discussions about another research building in the Jewelry District, and the Department of Health plans on building a seven-story public health lab [a $165 million project on former I-195 land]. I can see those being the cornerstones of the industry blossoming that you’d need to move this to the next level.
When I first got here, I realized I could spend all my time telling people what to do and someone would say “we can’t do that because...” and they had creative reasons for the “because.” I realized that the only way I was going to be able to get the culture change that I needed was to do it myself and let them tell me I couldn’t.
You’ve been on this journey for nearly four years. What’s it been like trying to get Brown’s first bioscience “spinoff” out there during the pandemic?
Our timing on building a biotech company couldn’t have been worse over the last three and a half years. We started this process at a time when even a very poor company could go out and do very well. But by the time we were ready to come out with IPOs, it was a time when no one was investing. But we hung in there and I hope that Ocean Biomedical can serve as a role model for what needs to get done to take on new discoveries, move them towards therapies, and then get them to patients.
What’s next for Ocean Biomedical?
We have some very powerful antibodies that we want to make into therapeutic drugs. Now that we’re not so focused on pitching this to the next banker, we can finally focus on getting IND, which is the investigational new drug certification from the FDA, and moving this forward on Phase 1 and Phase II clinical trials.
[Ocean Biomedical also recently published discovery data for a major anti-tumor pathway in malignant melanoma and other cancers.]
When drugs do begin to hit clinical trials, do you hope they will benefit patients in Rhode Island at Lifespan- and Care New England-owned hospitals?
I would think they might be able to. But we have to get them to patients in whatever way the FDA tells us to. But we have some tremendous clinicians and doctors at these hospitals and a patient population that wants to have the latest therapies available to them.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.