3 Meetings and Leadership Qualities That Changed Everything for Biopharma Startup AsclepiX
Getting innovative drugs in patients’ hands requires foresight, determination and courage, plus sound, science-based, strategic decisions and the right team.
Wendy Perrow has always been in the business of saving lives.
When a young boy in Texas contracted a rare disease after a bone marrow transplant, it was Perrow’s team at a small biotech firm that developed a life-saving treatment. She’s also met families who lost loved ones because a treatment didn’t yet exist.
“Being with patients and their families and seeing their struggles is not something that ever leaves you,” she said.
These experiences have fueled Perrow’s commitment to getting innovative medicines in patients’ hands. During her 30-year pharmaceutical career, she has obtained a Master of Business Administration from Duke University and helped launch a range of medicines globally, including medications to lower cholesterol, prevent chickenpox and treat hypertension. Perrow has also developed medicine for a rare ocular disease, celiac disease and severe venous occlusive disease following bone marrow transplant.
She was appointed by the governor to Maryland’s Life Science Advisory Board, and her leadership has earned her many awards, including the 2017 State of Maryland Entrepreneur of the Year. She began her career in marketing before moving to senior executive roles at public and private pharmaceutical companies.
Now, as CEO of AsclepiX Therapeutics, Perrow is using her wealth of experience—including stints at Merck, Johnson & Johnson and other firms—to develop treatments for retinal and ocular diseases and cancer.
The Baltimore-based startup’s lead product is a drug that targets sufferers of diabetic macular edema (DME) and wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD) which can lead to vision loss. Currently in preclinical trials, the new drug aims to decrease monthly treatments to an annual eye injection.
But the journey to market is long—and sound science alone doesn’t guarantee success. Like many CEOs at life sciences startups, Perrow had to make the right decisions at the right time.
These are the three meetings and leadership qualities that have shaped the trajectory of AsclepiX.
Determination When Meeting With the FDA
Perrow joined AsclepiX because she believed in its scientific team and potential. The company grew out of a team at Johns Hopkins University, where founders Drs. Aleksander Popel and Jordan Green and Vice President of Research and Development Dr. Niranjan Pandey developed their treatment for DME and wet AMD.
Perrow was determined to demonstrate that AsclepiX had strong science and a unified team. This was critical given that the outlook for a pharmaceutical startup aren’t good. A report by CB Insights found that 67 percent of startups fail. Why? The market intelligence firm said the lack of a market need is the No. 1 reason, followed by running out of cash and not having the right team in place.
The first pivotal meeting Perrow faced at the company came in December 2016, when AsclepiX first met with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This pre-investigational new drug meeting served as the team’s chance to prove its scientific fundamentals and share documentation and plans with the regulatory body. The meeting was a success, allowing the team to move forward.
“This is a very long path to get a medicine to market, and you want to be able to be behind something that can really make a difference in patient’s lives,” Perrow said.
Wendy Perrow, AsclepiX CEO
Foresight For A Capital Infusion
Scientific and regulatory hurdles weren’t the only challenges AsclepiX faced. There was also the matter of capital. Initially, $11 million in grants from organizations including the National Eye Institute and the National Cancer Institute funded the work. But Perrow had the foresight to seek outside investment to get AscelpiX to the next level. That realization led the company to meet with Barer & Son Capital and Rapha Capital in 2018.
Globally, biotech funding is on the rise. Biotech companies raised nearly $29 billion in venture funding in 2018, according to TechCrunch. That’s up from $19 billion the year before.
Perrow and her team shared their story and vision for AsclepiX’s future with the investors. The stakes were high, but Perrow quickly understood that the Barer & Son and Rapha Capital teams shared her enthusiasm for the medicines in development. This initial meeting led to a broader presentation, which in turn brought in over $8 million. As the company’s first outside funding, the investors’ funds forged the way for a new phase of growth. For Perrow, it was a critical partnership with a team that shared the startup’s vision and goals.
“Your investors are your partners. It’s truly a marriage, one of trust and willingness to work together,” Perrow said. “And when you approach investors that way—as you do with the FDA and regulatory agencies as a partner—I think you’ll find that that’s a very successful way to get medicines to market.”
Courage Behind A Pivotal Presentation
Early on during Perrow’s time at AsclepiX, she was invited to present at the Ophthalmology Innovation Summit at the American Society for Retina Specialists annual conference. Perrow knew it was a valuable opportunity, but felt that the team didn’t yet have the data to make a meaningful presentation. Perrow turned the offer down two years in a row until the summer of 2019, when she was armed with the data she needed to make the case. Turning down these opportunities took significant courage.
“A lot of people would probably say, ‘Oh, this is great. Let’s just do it,’” Perrow said. “But I really felt that it was important to have enough scientific data for the presentation to be meaningful.”
By all accounts, Perrow’s strategy of waiting until she was ready proved to be a success.
“The outpouring of interest in the product since then—and in the company—has been tremendous,” she said.
The summit was just one more meeting that validated Perrow’s belief in the company’s mission and her own commitment to this valuable work.
“When our team is focused on bringing new medicines to patients who have unmet medical needs, and when you do that, I think it’s the most exciting and rewarding thing that a person can do,” she said.