CALYXHA develops new therapies against tissue degeneration and is based on novel mechanisms. I.E.C.T. – Hermann Hauser spoke with Tanja Gesell and Marco Sealey about their participation at the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship, the current challenge of Covid-19 and their first patent.
First Patent and Seed Funding for SSE-Alumni CALYXHA
The CALYXHA company
CALYXHA Biotechnologies GmbH is a product development company in the preclinical stage and also applies its drug discovery technology in industry partnerships. CALYXHA was founded in 2019 by Eszter Nagy MD PhD, Founder and CEO of CEBINA GmbH (Central European Biotech Incubator and Accelerator), Co-founder and President of Eveliqure Biotechnologies GmbH, previously Co-founder and CSO of Arsanis Inc, Vice President and Global Head of Research at Intercell AG (now Valneva SAS); Prof Robert Konrat, PhD (University of Vienna, Max F. Perutz Laboratories) and scientists Marco Sealey, PhD and Tanja Gesell, PhD; Wolfgang Friedl and CEBINA GmbH. CALYXHA is incubated and accelerated by CEBINA GmbH.
Talking to CALYXHA
Tanja and Marco – you both have been to Summer School – could you share a little bit your story how your path from researcher to entrepreneur happened to be as well as what role Summer School took over?
You’re certainly right that it’s an interesting situation! Both of us participated in the Summer School: I was one of the first participants in the “2015 experiment,” meaning it was the first year of the summer school; Tanja followed in 2016 with Lea (our daughter) and me backstage.
Making the transition from the academic environment to start a venture, and become an entrepreneur…well, it’s not easy. During our studies and while pursuing various degrees, especially in the scientific environment, we are “programmed” to follow mainly one path – that leading to a professorship. This pathway seems to be too narrow and limiting sometimes, and it’s clear to me that we need more alternatives. Luckily, the academic community is slowly changing and providing more entrepreneurial programs and options in the curriculum.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to work on research projects focused on understanding trypanosomes, a group of unicellular pathogens. These are parasites that currently affect many people and cause significant morbidity and mortality in the developing world, and there are very few therapies available. Working to understand the molecular and cellular biology of these organisms, and thereby provide tools for diagnostics and chemotherapy was always a motivation for me. During this journey, I got to observe and experience the interface between basic and applied research.
At the Konrat group in the department of Computational and Structural Biology at the Max Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, Austria, I coordinated interdisciplinary projects that combined cell biology with atomic-resolution studies of protein binding using NMR. I also assisted in the development of in vitro disease models for studying the mode of action of small molecules.
In 2015, following a suggestion by the Technology Transfer Office at the University of Vienna, I attended the summer school to present one of the projects that I was working on. Six years ago, I did my first “elevator pitch”, built a business plan and after an intensive week of work, finally pitched in front of real investors. It was truly exciting, and after that experience it was clear to me that to be an entrepreneur you need to have passion, confidence in your project, and a willingness to adapt to change. And after five years, working on the future CALYXHA projects, collecting data, filing a patent, and believing in it, I decided to change my academic path and focus on CALYXHA.
Today, as a couple, we are fortunate – since our trajectories are connected, but we have different paths and complementary expertise. Indeed, the CALYXHA project has two seeds, which were growing more and more together along their paths.
I am a Molecular and Computational Biology scientist as well as a trained artist. Both fields are united by the underlying question: what is a structure? Yes, it’s a deep academic question, but one that turned later into a business.
In a first step, I have defined a phylogentic definition of structure, then with international collaborators, I found various extensive sets of functional transcriptomic annotations associated with complex diseases.
In my career, that underling question about structure developed into the questions: what is a disease, and what is behind a disease?
With Professor Robert Konrat at the University of Vienna, I also started considering structural features of small molecules (drugs). We strongly believed that new structural models allow exploration of new approaches in medicine.
In Alpbach I presented our in silico drug discovery platform based on unified structure definitions, which can be used for both repurposing existing drugs and identifying possible disease applications for novel chemical compounds. The drug development platform was a starting point for the discovery of the molecules used by CALYXHA.
After Marco established different in vitro and in vivo experiments in the lab, I started and coordinated bioinformatics projects that combined next-generation sequencing techniques, metabolomics, and image analysis with big data to identify and understand the mode of action (MoA) of our new compounds. Starting with a bottom-up approach to find different potential candidates, I switched to top-down approaches to characterise these molecules. From this point onwards we have focused together on future CALYXHA projects.
What I think has been essential to CALYXHA is how we complement each other based on our professional expertise. The different knowledge and expertise that we can combine, and use to design together experiments that combine in vitro and in vivo disease models with sophisticated experimental readouts and deep bioinformatic analysis, is a real plus.
Regarding COVID-19 we all currently face challenging and volatile times. How is Calyxha doing?
It’s hard to imagine who is not affected today by COVID-19. We, like many of the startups located at the Vienna Biocenter, were directly affected by the shutdown.
In our case, we have a very close collaboration with the laboratories at the University of Vienna and the university closed on March 15th. Since then, we have had no access to infrastructure, machines, services and the collaboration with the university labs stopped. It’s the moment when we all realised how much we depended on but also profited from the location at the Vienna Biocenter.
At the beginning, I contacted colleagues at the campus who are running cell culture experiments to ask how and what they were doing. For all of us responsible for the labs, it was a hard call to balance the risk of infection for us or one of the employees with the need to keep the experiments running. I was delighted to experience the very collaborative environment on campus during these difficult times, however: we all have a willingness to help, to share lab equipment, instruments, and reagents.
For CALYXHA, the COVID-19 crisis changed our perspective in different ways. On the one hand, it is hard to fulfil some of our milestones in time. On the other hand, with our tissue degeneration approach we pivoted to COVID-19 as well, hoping to contribute. Drug repurposing has of course become a well-known phrase during this crisis. Our drug development platform has the potential for different partnerships. With CALYXHA, we have the advantage that the drug discovery platform is already on track.
Regarding funding, we were lucky to get support at the beginning of the year from Austrian VC as well as international investors, which will accelerate the preclinical development of our lead candidate. It will also broaden the scope of proof-of-concept studies in disease areas where we expect efficacy from our radically new disease-modifying approach.
Would you like to share another shaping situation you faced on your path of entrepreneurship?
The Summer School was an important step and experience for both of us. We still profit today from a fantastic network that originated from it.
Last year, we were pleased to get an invitation to give a talk at the 5th anniversary.
There, I spoke about the movie “Solaris” by Andre Tarkovsky. The film is a science fiction epic that sends a person into the unknown. It is not only a beautiful metaphor about our situation, but there is also a personal coincidence which connects “Solaris” with the Summer School.
A year later, Herman Hauser gave a talk at a research institute in Vienna. After his talk, we decided spontaneously to present him “Solaris”, to share and to continue a discussion from the school. At that time, we couldn’t have known that today our company CALYXHA would be sitting in a building at the Vienna Biocenter, called Solaris – what a fantastic coincidence!
One clear memory was when an outsourced animal experiment didn’t work out. It was an unfortunate and disappointing moment.
Weeks later, I got a call to say there had been a power cut in one deep freezer in the facility, and we had lost our tissue samples.
Following this bad news, we discussed the possibilities and options. Finally, they agreed to repeat the experiment. We increased the dose, and guess what? We got a dose-response! Thanks to the accident, we got a second chance! Without that positive experiment, and that moment of serendipity – I think CALYXHA wouldn’t exist today.
This moment I refer to as ”The call”. For me, it represents the “uncertainty-risk” that we all take when we start the journey with a startup.
Looking back at the summer school, we learned a lot, and in particular we learned entrepreneurship. Now that I am an entrepreneur I understand things better, and in particular the importance of the team.
The project was accelerated when Dr. Eszter Nagy joined the team as a CEO. Eszter has over 20 years of biotech experience in discovery, preclinical, and early clinical development. When we met Eszter, she had just founded CEBINA, a Central European Biotech Incubator and Accelerator.
Now, CALYXHA is in partnership with CEBINA, renting offices and laboratory space in the CEBINA facility, and is supported by its business development, R&D, and its operation team.
We continued to work with Prof. Robert Konrat. Since he is an entrepreneurial academic, the continued intense interaction with him has been very supportive and comforting in the transition process and bridging the two worlds.
The CALYXHA team is marked by critical but effective discussions from all angles in a productive and time-efficient manner. The team also includes our main investors with whom we meet frequently to discuss progress and strategies.
We have the vision to bring our molecules to the market. Along this line, I did the logo and the website. Retrospectively, at the early stage of the company, discussions about the logo were essential for the team to align claims and values.
Terms such as “milestones, deck, scientific-deck, business-deck, one pager, undisclosed, kick-off meetings, burning-rate, align, team, TC (teleconference), etc…. ” are now in our daily vocabulary.
Congratulations to your currently announced first patent grant as well as you secured seed funding – what are your next steps on your entrepreneurial road?
We are lucky to have supportive and engaged investors.
CALYXHA’s claim is revolution in targeting tissue degeneration, visually pointing to a process of de- and re-generation. Indeed, our approach is a radical new way to consider different diseases targeting tissue degeneration. This gives us the opportunity to contribute to the drug development against COVID-19 and other diseases while we fulfill our current milestones.
Today, scientists have a global responsibility regarding the COVID-19 crisis to consider every possibility to help. Along this line, we will keep our initial goals the development of drugs for treating tissue degeneration.
Thank you very much for sharing your story and we are looking forward to meeting you soon again.
About the Co-founders
Marco is a co-founder and Head of Discovery and Research at CALYXHA. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2007 from the Institute of Parasitology and Biomedicine Lopez Neyra (CSIC) in Granada, Spain. For his Ph.D. thesis, he studied drug target validation of the sterol biosynthetic pathway in trypanosomes, a group of unicellular pathogens. As a postdoctoral fellow, he was (in 2007) a visiting scientist in the laboratory of Professor Mark Field at the Department of Pathology in Cambridge University, UK.
In 2008 he moved to Vienna to work in Professor Graham Warren’s laboratory at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories, Vienna, Austria. During this time he studied the secretory pathway, endomembrane system, and cytoskeleton of trypanosomes. In 2015 he joined the Konrat group at the department of Computational and Structural Biology at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, Austria. The Konrat group specialises in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and while in the Konrat group Dr. Sealey coordinated interdisciplinary projects that combined cell biology with atomic-resolution studies of protein binding using NMR.
He also assisted in the development of in vitro disease models for studying the mode of action of small molecules.
Tanja is a co-founder and the Head of In Silico Research and the Drug-Discovery Platform of CALYXHA. She is also in charge for the visual branding of CALYXHA.
She received her Ph.D. in Computational Biology and Molecular Biology in 2009 from the University of Vienna. She conducted research at the Center of Integrative Bioinformatics in Vienna, Austria, at Harvard University and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, USA, and at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK. Her scientific research encompasses the fields of evolutionary and comparative genomics, molecular structure research, information-visualisations, neurobiology, and drug discovery and development.
She previously graduated as a fine artist in 2004 from the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 2015 she co-founded the Connectivity Seminar at the University of Vienna. Besides research, she teaches at the University of Applied Arts and the FH-Campus University of Applied Science.
In 2013 she joined the Konrat group at the Department of Computational and Structural Biology at the Max Perutz Laboratories in Vienna, Austria. Besides RNA-Meta-structure and the phase behavior of intrinsically disorderd proteins, she worked on an in silico drug discovery and development pipeline and coordinated bioinformatics projects that combined next-generation sequencing techniques, metabolomics, and image analysis with big data to identify and understand the mode of action of new compounds.
I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship
The I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship has been able to provide the company with the first basics and structures for its start-up.
Do you also have an idea that you think has market potential, but need support in its implementation? Then apply for the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship 2020 and take the next steps together with I.E.C.T. – Hermann Hauser and our international partners and experts and let your innovative idea become reality!
I.E.C.T. – Fellowship Programme
Become a Fellow and benefit from the financial support of an established company and its years of experience and network.
Your benefits as a Fellow
As a Fellow, the company pays for your participation in the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship and supports you with an accommodation and travel allowance of €700,-.
At the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship you will be presented as a Fellow of the company in our Course Handbook and at the opening event. The company will be on site during the event and support you.
Your advantage: You will not only benefit from the financial support but also from the cooperation and the years of experience of the company.
The selection process is the same as for a normal application. The I.E.C.T. team will look at all applicants in detail and select suitable applications for a Skype interview with one of our experts. Information about the normal process can be found in the application form.
Become a Fellow of the Tiroler Sparkasse
The Tiroler Sparkasse will again provide a fellowship ticket for the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship this year. You want to bring your development and know-how to Tyrol and thus strengthen this economic region? Your start-up is possibly also from the tourism sector?
Then apply now for the I.E.C.T. – Summer School on Entrepreneurship 2020 and become a Fellow of the Tiroler Sparkasse.
Links and Information
The I.E.C.T. – Hermann Hauser is pleased about the cooperation with the Tiroler Sparkasse. In this context we would like to introduce our partner and talk about the future collaboration in form of an interview.
The interview covers common ground, the future picture of the Tiroler Sparkasse as well as goals and milestones we want to achieve together.