Building a New Class of Medicine in Biotech

What if there were a way to genetically engineer fungi species and transform them into human therapeutics to help with neurological disorders?
Today’s guest, Dr. Usman (Oz) Azam, just launched a biotech, Empyrean Neurosciences, that is genetically modifying fungi to create therapeutics.
Biotech is hard enough as it is, but what does it take to pioneer an entirely new class of medicine as a biotech startup? Oz shares his experience and his strategies at Empyrean to navigate the intersection of neurological disease and mental health.

Here are a few of the highlights from this episode:

    • Innovation in biotech

      Oz’s diverse background lent to his current success. He started out in big pharma companies like Pfizer and J&J, followed by a stint running his own company and back to big pharma at Novartis. After his time at Novartis, Oz jumped back into the entrepreneurial biotech space again, building Tmunity from scratch.

      Curiosity is vital to success in early-stage biotechs. It’s also important to evaluate your personal risk/benefit meter if you want to bring new innovations to the market.

    • Empyrean: a new class of medicine

      Oz’s new company, Empyrean, is building an entirely new class of medicine in neuroscience. Their focus is on genetically engineering small molecules from different species of fungi in plants to create human therapeutics, which nobody has done before.

      Empyrean is poised to bring a much-needed revolution in neuroscience, specifically for neuropsychiatry and neurology and potentially other therapeutic disease areas as well.

      Now a preclinical company, Oz has a vision to introduce the world’s first botanical, that is a genetically engineered mushroom containing psilocybin to treat patients suffering from disorders like major depressive disorder.

      Bringing a novel drug to the market, especially with current macro-economic headwinds, takes a high level of nimbleness and agility as a company. That’s why Empyrean is using an agile model to scale in a greenfield therapeutic space.

    • Agile organizational development
      According to Oz, it’s key to balance both focus on platform and therapeutic simultaneously. He feels that after developing the platform, it’s important to double down on the therapeutic early on.

      It’s essential to find that one thread that will tell a compelling story to get funding and explore other pathways.

    • Sequencing Resources
      In large organizations, the growth algorithms are relatively fixed.

      A startup is a different animal altogether. The leaders do a little bit of everything in the early stages. As funds come in, resource allocation is key.

      Empyrean is a nine-person company. They have to maximize their resources at this critical stage. That’s why they engage strategic partners like SSI Strategy.

    • Hybrid Team
      Oz has taken a hybrid team approach. One of the big mistakes you see in early-stage biotechs is overbuilding the team. The timing of hiring is essential to early success and avoid reconstruction.

      Empyrean is prioritizing wet lab genetic engineers as internal hires, because the genetic engineering is their differentiating attribute. Then it’s a matter of determining how to strategically outsource other roles that are not core to the business model.

      Empyrean is partnering with SSI Strategy, so they can remain agile in these early stages and maximize the funding runway while still getting things done on time. If there are any hiccups along the way, they simply flex down their SSI team and back up as funding allows.

      They bring in virtual, augmented legal/finance support in different areas of the business to stay lean. Hiring FTE roles too early can sink an early-stage company.

    • Culture and Mentorship
      Oz mentions that just because someone has a specific role at a Big Pharma company, that doesn’t mean they will be successful at building out that role within a startup. The skillsets for managing vs. building are completely different.

      It takes a specific phenotype to thrive in a biotech startup environment. You must be curious enough to dig until you get a breakthrough.

      Working with people that are fun to be around is crucial, when you get into the trenches with someone, make sure you like to be around them.

    • Build an executive leadership network
      A lot of times, the asset is fixed to a degree. The difference between failure and success is the organizational leader. Everyone needs 2-3 people they can go to outside their team for advice and support.

The CEO is the loneliest job in the world, according to Oz. It’s important to find and get hooked up with good leaders so you can emulate their success and learn from their mistakes.

Building relationships with other senior leaders and CEOs is vital to success. Go to conferences and events and network, participate in industry groups. You never know who you will meet.

Mentorship is key, and it doesn’t have to be solely focused in the biotech industry.

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