July 10, 2017

Bioscience entrepreneur Hellsund's latest startup targets cancer research

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Per Hellsund, president & CEO of New Haven-based Cybrexa Therapeutics

Q&A talks to Per Hellsund, president & CEO of New Haven-based Cybrexa Therapeutics, which recently raised $6 million to advance its cancer research.

Q: You've become a serial biotech entrepreneur of sorts having previously founded and then sold for $195 million Wallingford biochemical test maker CyVek. Now your latest biotech venture, Cybrexa Therapeutics in New Haven, recently raised $6 million. What is Cybrexa Therapeutics and how did the company's founding come about?

A: After the acquisition of CyVek, Kevin Didden, Kevin Rakin and I decided to get together to start another company. As we did with CyVek, we put up some seed money and started a company with the objective of identifying an exciting and investable business opportunity. So we started from scratch. My role was to look at opportunities that fit our criteria and model for building successful startups. One of the key things we look for is the right technical talent that we can combine with an experienced CEO, along with an unmet need, and certain market characteristics, etc.

We looked at over a dozen opportunities to pursue. Eventually, Rakin introduced me to a rising star at Yale, Ranjit Bindra, and his colleague Peter Glazer, both doctors, Ph.D.'s and experts in the area of DNA repair. They had an idea to combine a cancer tumor targeting technology discovered at Yale with a class of drugs called DNA repair inhibitors. The objective is to create a new class of drugs that directly target cancer tumors while sparing normal tissue, thereby making the drugs more effective with far fewer side effects.

Q: Is this Cybrexa's first outside investment? What will the $6 million in new funding allow the company to do?

A: We started with some seed money that was used to develop the business plan and secure licensing for the tumor targeting technology. The $6 million is being used to build out our facility in New Haven, recruit the startup team and develop a proof of concept model.

I am very fortunate in that I work with a team of very successful entrepreneurs who have provided very good returns to investors so there is a lot of investor interest in our startups.

Unlike most startup entrepreneurs, I spend very little time and energy raising money, which allows me to focus on building the business. The funding that we have raised to date has come from private investors, Connecticut Innovations, and an investment vehicle of Rakin's HighCape Partners venture fund.

Q: What's the short- and long-term business strategy for Cybrexa Therapeutics?

A: The short-term strategy is to prove out the technology and then move one drug candidate into a phase 1 human trial. Longer term, we plan to develop a portfolio of drugs based on our tumor- targeting technology that addresses a number of different cancer indications. We will also likely partner with large pharma companies to move some of these into later-stage clinical trials and through to commercialization.

Q: What are the biggest challenges the company faces in developing its technology from the lab to market?

A: I think the honest answer is that we don't know. We are at an early stage in the development and we have mapped out a plan, but we won't know where the real problems are until we are further down the road. Technology development is difficult and unpredictable, so I'm certain we will run into problems, but it will probably be something we haven't considered.

Q: What key lessons did you take away in starting up and eventually selling CyVek that will help you in developing Cybrexa?

A: Work continuously on hiring the right people, and removing the ones that are not a good fit; create the right culture where people are passionate about the company's mission; stay disciplined and focused; put energy into building a great product and a great company (not selling the company) and good things will happen.

It is going to sound cliche, but if you have a great team and keep them focused on the right objectives the CEOs job becomes easier. We had a great team and culture at CyVek; our Chief Technology Officer Marty Putnam and his technical team were just phenomenal. We're in the process of recreating that at Cybrexa.

Q: How would you assess the growth of Connecticut's bioscience industry in recent years?

I think the growth of startup companies has been strong, and I am encouraged by the state's interest in developing the bioscience industry. The downside is that we are seeing a lot of the Big Pharma companies either eliminating Connecticut operations or moving to other states. We need to retain the critical mass of talent for the bioscience sector to thrive. I have interviewed a number of scientists recently who lost their big pharma jobs in Connecticut and decided to move to Boston or California where they see better long-term career prospects.

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