Meet the X of the Year Finalists for the Xconomy Awards San Diego

Xconomy San Diego — 

The Xconomy Awards categories weren’t enough to capture the full diversity of the San Diego life science community. So we at Xconomy created X of the Year for people who are so unique they needed their own categories. Read on for short introductions of the X of the Year finalists.

This is part of a series of articles profiling the finalists of the Xconomy Awards San Diego. Other articles have covered the finalists in the CEO, Commitment to Diversity, Innovation at the Intersection, Digital Trailblazer, Lifetime Achievement and Startup categories. Winners will be announced at the Awards Gala on May 29.

Evofem Biosciences – Turnaround Story of the Year
Nearly two years ago, the FDA rejected Evofem Biosciences’ application for approval of its contraceptive drug, largely because the agency wouldn’t accept data from about 20 percent of Evofem’s clinical trials of the drug, which were done in Russia.

Such a rejection can be the kiss of death for a young biotech. But CEO Saundra Pelletier, who joined Evofem in 2013 after the decision to do those trials had been made, has since turned the company around. It conducted another pivotal study of the contraceptive, enrolling about 1,400 women across more than 100 US sites. The company announced results in late 2018 showing that the drug, a nonhormonal gel called Amphora that regulates vaginal pH, was as effective as birth control pills when used as directed. If approved, the drug could become an option for women who don’t want or can’t use hormone-based contraceptives such as birth control pills because of health reasons.

The company expects an FDA decision by year’s end. An approval would allow Evofem to commercialize a new non-hormonal, “woman-controlled” contraceptive, to be used only as needed—one of the most substantive new contraceptive products in years. The gel is also in clinical trials as a preventative treatment for common sexually transmitted infections and other indications.

Mike Grey – Mentor of the Year
Mike Grey has co-founded, led, and grown several biotechs, including four that were acquired. But people who nominated Grey for an Xconomy Award noted that one thing that makes him stand out is his mentorship. “He’s basically trained a whole crop of folks through various startups,” says Nancy Hong, managing director of RiverVest Venture Partners, which has invested in many of Grey’s companies. “He’s seeding the next generation of biotech executives.”

A handful of current biotech CEOs, many of them first-time chief executives, learned from Grey. For example, Niall O’Donnell, also with RiverVest, co-founded Lumena Pharmaceuticals with others including Grey, who was CEO of the company. O’Donnell served as interim chief medical officer before the company was acquired by Shire in 2014 for $260 million. O’Donnell is now CEO of Reneo Pharmaceuticals, which he co-founded with Grey and others. With Grey as chair of Reneo, O’Donnell says he’s learned key team and board management skills from Grey, who has also helped him with tough decisions. “When you’re a first-time CEO, you need a chair to help you with all the bumps in the road,” O’Donnell says.

Another Lumena alumnus is Ciara Kennedy, who was Lumena’s chief operating officer. She is now CEO of Amplyx Pharmaceuticals, where Grey is also chair. Kennedy was initially Amplyx’s COO, working with Grey as CEO, before he handed the reins to Kennedy in 2017.

Grey is also chair of Spruce Biosciences, which was founded by Alexis Howerton when she was a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. Howerton is Spruce’s CEO.

Hong, who is working on a company in stealth with Grey, says, “being able to draw on a new crop of folks who have taken on increasing responsibility, under Mike’s mentorship, has been terrific and is really important to keeping San Diego [life sciences] going and strong.”

Lilly Grossman – Inspiration of the Year
Lilly Grossman grew up in San Diego and struggled for over a decade to get a diagnosis for her rare genetic disease, which causes her to be physically disabled. She has worked tirelessly as an advocate for people with disabilities through her writing and her work with RespectAbility, a nonprofit that aims to destigmatize disability. She was on the organization’s communications team, working with Hollywood to increase representation of people with disabilities both in front and behind the camera. She writes about her story to educate people about her condition, and received the Girl Scout Gold Award in 2014 for implementing an evacuation plan at her high school for people with disabilities in the event of an emergency.

In college, Grossman continued pushing for better support for people with disabilities. She worked with her college to bring evacuation devices called Med Sleds to buildings with stairs so that disabled people can evacuate during emergencies.

She will graduate college this week with a degree in political science. Grossman says after graduating, she will continue volunteering for Global Genes, the large rare disease advocacy group. One of her projects compares services for the disabled in California and Texas.

“Being an advocate means living your life by example and leveling the playing field for others,” says Grossman. “My hope is that others will learn to advocate for their needs in schools, medical care, and home support. Everyone should have the supports in place to make them as independent as possible.”

Jeanne Loring, Scripps Research Institute and Apsen Neuroscience – Stem Cell Pioneer of the Year
Jeanne Loring has traveled a meandering path from biotech to academia and back again to industry in her long career as a stem cells and genomics researcher. Loring worked in biotech for 15 years early on in her career, founding Arcos Bioscience, which eventually merged with the company that would later become ViaCyte (a finalist in the Big Idea category, developing cell therapy for diabetes). Loring says she was involved in some of the earliest discussions about using stem cells for diabetes.

The next stop on her journey was as a Scripps professor, where her lab worked for years on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are derived from adult cells such as skin cells and can develop into a variety of tissue types. Loring and her group came up with a recipe to turn iPS cells into neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine—the cells that die in the brains of Parkinson’s patients. Her goal has been to turn that technology into a cell therapy for Parkinson’s.

To make this happen, Loring co-founded Aspen Neuroscience in 2018, which secured $6.5 million in seed funding in December (Kim Kamdar, an Awards judge, is the startup’s interim CEO but she did not judge this category). In June, Loring will retire from Scripps and devote herself to the startup, where she is chief scientific officer. The company aims to launch its first clinical trial in 2020 to test its personalized cell therapy.

Aspen’s approach involves taking skin cells from a Parkinson’s patient, converting them in the lab into young dopamine-making neurons, and surgically implanting them into a key part of the patient’s brain. The hope is that over several months, the cells will mature and form new brain circuits that will ultimately reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s—a one-time treatment. The company also uses various sequencing technologies to ensure the implanted cells don’t have mutations that might lead to, for example, uncontrolled growth.

Loring says that in moving between biotech and academia throughout her career, she has taken a pragmatic approach to translating stem cell science into therapies. “Whatever environment where I could continue doing what I wanted to do was the environment I wanted to be in.”

Razelle Kurzrock, UC San Diego Health Sciences – Precision Medicine Leader of the Year
Razelle Kurzrock is the founding director of the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy and Clinical Trials Office at UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center, and also chief of hematology and oncology at UCSD’s School of Medicine.

Before coming to UCSD, Razelle was best known for building and chairing the largest and one of the most successful Phase 1 clinical trials program in the world, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. There she pushed for the use of molecular profiling technologies to match cancer patients with targeted therapies, a core tenet of precision medicine.

One trial she started and is leading at UCSD is a study conducted in collaboration with Foundation Medicine, a Roche subsidiary that sells tumor-profiling tests. The trial, called I-PREDICT, is following cancer patients to see how well Foundation’s test can predict the right therapy for patients. In a paper published recently in Nature Medicine, Kurzrock and colleagues noted that patients in the trial whose tumors, often with multiple mutations, were more closely matched with a drug or drug combination, had better outcomes. There are caveats to the small trial, and Kurzrock says more studies are needed to validate the findings. But the idea of treatments tailored to each cancer’s genetic fingerprint is drawing closer to reality.

Kurzrock is also a co-founder and a key inventor of the technology behind CureMatch, a startup that is a finalist in the Startup category. The company has come up with machine-learning based software that analyzes tumor genetic data to generate a ranked list of personalized drug combinations out of a possible 4.5 million combinations.

Sarah de Crescenzo and Alex Lash contributed to this article.