For the first interview in our Human Strategy Series, the team recently spoke with Dr Jackie Ameri, CEO of Pancryos, who benefited from our Leadership Assessment service as part of the partnership between Coulter Partners and the BioInnovation Institute (BII). Jackie discusses her early career, her decision to join the BII and highlights the benefits of being part of the BII Creation House Program.
Coulter Partners: Please describe the science that underpins Pancryos.
Jackie Ameri: Pancryos is developing an allogeneic stem cell-based cell therapy for Type 1 diabetes. It is based on research that myself and my co-founder, Professor Henrik Semb, have been performing for the last 18 years at the Lund Stem Cell Center and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology (DanStem) at the University of Copenhagen.
Type 1 diabetes is a deadly disease with no available cure. Current treatment options only target symptoms and patients must inject themselves with insulin every day to stay alive.
We have, however, discovered a cell surface marker called GP2 that is specific to the pancreatic progenitor cells. These cells have the capacity to form all the cells that exist in the pancreas, including insulin-producing cells. Using this marker, we have developed a unique protocol that allows us to generate cultures of mature functional insulin-producing cells, which have the potential to cure diabetes by replacing damaged cells once implanted into patients.
CP: We talked about your work as a scientist and as a co-founder of Pancryos. Has diabetes always been of scientific interest to you?
Jackie: I have always been curious about research but my interests in science started in high school. We had been given an assignment and I chose to focus on Multiple Sclerosis because of a family member affected by this disease. At that point there was no cure for the disease and the in-depth work I did then, including contacting neurologists in hospitals, really sparked my interest in auto-immune diseases and research in general. Later on, I decided to choose this as my research field, and I did my Master thesis in a lab where they were working on MS and arthritis. The idea was for me to stay on but, because of funding issues, I had to look for other PhD positions and this is when I came across a position in the field of stem cells and diabetes.
James Thomson’s breakthrough in 1998, where he isolated and cultured the first human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line, sparked an enormous hype around stem cells and in 2004, when I started my PhD studies, the possibility of being able to cure once intractable diseases got me very excited and inspired me to apply for this position. That’s how I came into this field and that was 18 years ago!
During that time, I realized the extent of the task at hand: when I started as a PhD student, I had big ambitions and thought – perhaps a bit naively – that I was going to cure the world of diabetes, but over the years I became more grounded. I changed my expectations and started to understand and have more respect for the challenge ahead of me. If I am being honest, there were even times when I felt a bit deflated and discouraged. One huge milestone came, however, in 2014 when we managed to generate insulin-producing cells in a culture dish using the protocol that I had been working on for ten years. This was a big moment! I remembered the passion that I had as a student years earlier and it really reignited my belief that this could be done.
On the back of this breakthrough, I was offered a position at another university to start my own group. The University of Copenhagen meanwhile patented some of the discoveries that I had made and offered me the opportunity to form a spin out. So, I had to decide whether I wanted to continue with the academic path or take a more risky option with the spin out.
Lots of people at that point probably thought that it was a crazy decision to turn down a more or less secure position at a university, with the funding to hire more people and to just continue doing what I knew and what I was good at, but I took the leap, and I honestly don’t regret it!
I know that this start-up company is in its early days, and I cannot say whether it will be a big success, but I have really enjoyed the journey so far. I feel that I am growing as a person, learning new things, and thriving on the challenges that I’m facing.
CP: That was a big decision. Another major decision was to engage with and work with the BioInnovation Institute. What thoughts were going through your mind when you were looking at the Institute as a possibility?
Jackie: I was very excited. When we started working on the spin out at the university, it felt that something was lacking in our academic environment: there was no organization or structure to get all the different university spin outs together and connect us, even though we were all facing similar challenges. The BioInnovation Institute offered a response to that need and, as we were one of first companies to join the Creation House program, it was great to be able to provide some input early on.
CP: You’ve been involved with the BioInnovation Institute for some time now. Looking back, what would you say have been the two or three most valuable things in that experience?
Jackie: One of the most valuable aspects of course was the funding. Without it, we would not be here today.
The BioInnovation Institute was still in its infancy when we joined as we were among the program’s first cohorts but, even then, I appreciated the opportunity to have that network of people to connect to, and to be surrounded by other peers who were doing similar things, going through the same journey and facing similar challenges to me.
Receiving support, getting introduced to investors and receiving recommendations – for example on which conferences to attend – was also invaluable.
CP: As part of the program, in partnership with Coulter Partners, BII also offers a Leadership Assessment designed to help founders think about their leadership capabilities and their leadership goals. What did you gain from going through that process?
Jackie: To be honest, initially, I was rather reluctant as I didn’t know what to expect from the assessment. I signed up as it was part of the overall program, but I was a bit critical. Having been through the process though, and finalized it, I thought it was very rewarding and eye opening.
I filled the questionnaires and then we had several interview sessions, and I was very much surprised by the way that the Coulter Partner Consultant understood me and the challenges I was facing. We had never met before and yet he was able to identify both my weaknesses and strengths. I really enjoyed our discussions and getting to know the Consultant and Coulter Partners and feel grateful for all the input and advice I received.
CP: Looking back on that then, was that a productive thing to do?
Jackie: Absolutely. It was interesting for me to understand what I’m good at, but also to identify my development needs. In general, the experience has made me more aware, and it now transpires in both how I communicate the pitch and how I talk to investors.
CP: You mentioned earlier the benefits of getting sector introductions. We introduced you to a contact with a great deal of experience in the Life Sciences sector, who has helped early-stage companies grow and build. How has that been going? Is it still a productive relationship for you?
Jackie: Yes, and I’m very thankful for this introduction. We have continued to be in touch, and he is now actively involved in our company and will assist me in our fundraising efforts through his established network. He’s very sympathetic and we have a mutual understanding which I think is more important than anything else. I feel like he understands my pain and challenges and I feel very comfortable talking to him.
CP: There’s an old saying that being a chief executive is quite a lonely job, because you are sort of on your own and you’re responsible for everything. The idea of having a mentor like that, whether it’s someone who is formerly the chair of your board or whether they are there as a mentor and a coach, is to help reduce that loneliness almost and to give you some extra support. It sounds like that’s beginning to happen?
Jackie: Yes, I do feel comfortable. That chemistry is very important because it’s not easy to connect with everyone and it takes time to build a relationship where there is trust and where you feel comfortable sharing. I feel that we got there quite early, that there is mutual trust and respect there and it makes it just easier to work together.
CP: So, a lot has happened, but there’s a bright future ahead of you still. What’s on your near term and long-term horizons?
Jackie: I just secured some additional grant/soft funding from a Danish Fund, which helps us to extend our runway but, of course, for the coming 12 months, the number one priority is to secure a bigger round of funding.
I think we have very good momentum. We have access to an innovative delivery method and initiated in vivo validation studies via US partnerships and the results from these will help us in securing additional funds from investors.
Long term, what I really want is to get the funds required to kick off all this exciting work we have ahead of us, and to get closer to the goal that I have of taking our technology into the clinic. That is still 3-4 years ahead of us, but that’s the goal that I’m working towards. And then what’s likely to happen is that we will exit the company through acquisition or licensing of our technology.
CP: Fantastic. What advice would you give to a new company that’s come into this year’s intake at the BII, whether through the Creation House or the Venture Lab program?
Jackie: Generally, if I could go back in time, so to speak, I would have put more focus early on in the team building aspect, which is easily overlooked when you are a first time CEO with very limited funds.
I think it’s important to recognize your weaknesses early on and surround yourself with the right team/people who can complement your weaknesses. When I received our first university POC funding, the first thing I did was to bring in a business developer who had the commercial experience I was lacking at that point to develop our business plan and run a market landscape analysis. I also think it’s invaluable to get connected with the right mentors or people in an early-stage, who have relevant business expertise and who can support you to really accelerate things. This has been an important learning for me.
In terms of the BioInnovation Institute, I think it’s very important to understand what areas you want support in, what needs prioritizing and actively seek that type of support when you enter the Institute and engage with the people there that could help you.
In the Creation House program, a lot of us were quite established companies and had teams or a business plan in place, so we were expected to work very independently and that’s what we did, but it all depends on what stage you’re at.
Coming into a business setting like BII can get you introduced to people or consultants who can help you to put in place the different pieces that you know have been lacking, but it’s good to prioritize because you are in that incubator only for a short period of time.
CP: To conclude, if you were talking to someone who was unsure about joining such a mentoring or leadership program, what would you tell them?
Jackie: You don’t have anything to lose. I didn’t know what I was walking into, but it has been a fantastic opportunity to learn more about myself and get relevant input on how I can improve the company, our pitch etc.… It doesn’t require that much effort either.
When it comes to entrepreneurship in general, trying to keep an open mind is extremely important because you really don’t know what’s around the corner and it can go in one of several directions.
I like the excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen and I think I thrive on it.
Dr Jacqueline Ameri has dedicated two decades of her career to developing strategies for differentiating human pluripotent stem cells towards pancreatic cell lineages, specifically beta cells. Her scientific achievements allowed her to pursue the long-sought goal of her career, offering stem cell therapy to diabetes patients, by founding the university spinout company Pancryos. Pancryos is a pre-clinical stage privately owned company focused on developing a best-in-class curative stem cell therapy for treatment of type 1 diabetes. Serving as co-founder, CEO and Director of the company, Dr Ameri has spearheaded the research development, manufacturing, business development and financing aspects of the company since its incorporation in 2017.
In her previous role, she worked as Assistant Professor and Project Manager for the Diabetes Cell Therapy program in the Section for Strategic Translational Stem Cell Research and Therapy at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology (DanStem) at the University of Copenhagen.
Dr Ameri received her Doctorate in Functional Genetics from Lund University. She is a known expert in the hESC field and has been awarded multiple grants to finance her innovative discoveries.
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