You asked for more stories about your peers—fellow Connecticut entrepreneurs who are making waves in their respective industries—and we’re thrilled to deliver. This month, Connecticut Innovations sat down with Per Hellsund, president and CEO of Cybrexa Therapeutics, a bioscience startup whose technology targets cancer tumors. (Connecticut Innovations is an investor.) Here’s what he had to say.
Connecticut Innovations: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Per. You’ve built several successful companies. What drew you to the startup route?
Per Hellsund: I’ve always been excited about the opportunity to develop innovative technology to solve problems, and the best innovation happens in startup companies, where people who are passionate about applying their expertise to solve a specific challenge come together, whether that problem is in engineering, tech or biology. The flexibility, collaboration and creativity of a startup environment uniquely enables teams to do more, particularly when faced with complex challenges, and to move much more quickly than in larger companies. The energy that accompanies this type of venture is amazing and has always been a draw for me.
CI: You went from leading an inkjet company to running several life sciences ventures. What made you take such a big leap, and how did you overcome the steep learning curve?
PH: For me, the tremendous potential of technology to improve health and extend life inspired my entry into the life sciences. I’m an engineer by training, so applying science to improve quality of life has always been my mindset. In life sciences, I am doing that with a new set of tools, including biology and chemistry. For me, it is critical to bring on world-class technical folks who can fill in the gaps in my skill set. I enjoy learning about new technologies, so the chance to work in a new field was energizing. Life sciences was poised for dramatic change given discoveries in university labs, and oncology in particular has benefited from these, with the immuno-oncology and cell therapy revolutions. Oncology is poised for its next wave of innovation to bring new benefit to patients who still have high unmet need. I was excited to start a company that will be part of that next wave.
CI: You’ve been with Cybrexa Therapeutics for a few years now. What was the biggest challenge you needed to tackle when you took the helm, and how did you solve it?
PH: Cybrexa’s technology, which leverages the pH difference between tumor cells and normal cells to deliver anticancer agents only to tumors, has high potential and broad applications. That broad opportunity set was a challenge for a startup company with limited resources that was looking to quickly establish the credibility of the platform, advance a product into clinical trials, and have the greatest possible impact for patients. In addition, we needed to clearly articulate a value proposition to investors in the very crowded oncology field.
I was fortunate to join with Cybrexa’s scientific co-founders, Peter Glazer, MD, PhD, and Ranjit Bindra, MD, PhD, who are both practicing physicians at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven, faculty members at Yale and leaders in their field. With their help, we were able to look across all classes of anticancer agents and assess where Cybrexa’s alphalexTM technology had the potential to enable new therapies and change the standard of care. We were focused on two types of drugs: highly potent, efficacious therapeutics that were previously too toxic to be viable, and combinations of two different drugs that were known to have synergistic efficacy, but also had synergistic toxicity that prevented their use. We identified two classes of drugs for our initial focus: DNA Damage Repair (DDR) inhibitors and toxins.
We then recruited a truly phenomenal scientific advisory board—all are world-renowned thought leaders across a variety of tumor types and leaders in early drug development, and have decades of experience bringing drugs from the bench to the patient. With their help and all of the great work of the Cybrexa team, Cybrexa developed the alphalexTM technology platform, generated a lead program, CBX-11 (alphalexTM-rucaparib), that will file an IND by early next year, and a pipeline of preclinical candidates—all in a little over two years. That’s an incredible amount of progress.
CI: You’re adept at building high-impact teams. Can you give us some tips on how you go about it?
PH: I always look for new team members to bring more than just competence and being great at what they do. Fit with company culture and generally bringing energy, commitment, creativity and, most importantly, passion are crucial—as is maintaining an environment where these characteristics are encouraged and valued by leadership.
Things change quickly in biotech, particularly in startups. The ability to embrace change and learning agility are therefore important as well. So is the ability to think and work globally. Although we are currently a 20-person company, we work with companies across the globe, sometimes on a daily basis.
CI: Our readers are interested in learning more about expanding beyond Connecticut’s borders. You have experience growing companies that end up with an impressive global reach. Do you have advice for getting noticed on a global scale?
PH: Considering all customers and resources in all markets from the very start of product development is important. At Cybrexa, we developed an understanding of standard of care across the globe as well as the unmet need from the physician, payer and patient perspective, which differs across countries. We seek the best vendors, collaborators and partners regardless of geographic location, and plan to commercialize every product globally.
CI: What do you like about Connecticut as a place to start and grow a business?
PH: For a life sciences company, Connecticut has the ideal combination of highly skilled, experienced talent, outstanding research universities, proximity to venture capital and a reasonable cost base for facilities and equipment. Although Connecticut does not yet have the same high profile in biotech as our neighbor to the north (Boston), life sciences startups seeking to stand out in an ecosystem that supports innovation should consider Connecticut.
CI: Thanks for your time, Per.
PH: My pleasure.