The VIC Fellows Program provides an opportunity for individuals with relevant expertise and interest to learn how to identify and evaluate promising innovation from global sources. We are pleased to highlight the members of the 2020 class of fellows in our ongoing series of interviews, such as this recent discussion with Travis Nemkov, PhD.
Can you please tell us about your background?
I completed my PhD in Biochemistry and Structural Biology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and before that, Bachelor’s degrees in biology and biochemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder. Just after my junior year, I was hired for my first life science role at Roche where I worked as an intern in the R&D group on optimization of peptide syntheses. Towards the end of that summer, I found a job in the lab of Michael Stowell, a professor in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology department at CU.
Michael studies Alzheimer’s disease and needed a lot of beta-amyloid, which is a peptide involved in the disease pathogenesis. The amounts needed were cost prohibitive as beta-amyloid is notoriously difficult to make, so my job was to figure out a cheaper and better way to do it. The process that we ultimately developed served as the foundational IP for AmideBio, which was spun out of CU right as I was finishing undergrad. I spent the next few years helping to get the company off the ground before I left to start a PhD program just down the road at the medical campus. I had decided that I wanted to study biology from a more holistic, systems-wide perspective so I joined a mass spectrometry lab that was applying proteomics and metabolomics technologies to study wide ranging, yet interconnected areas from hemostasis to the tumor microenvironment. During this time, I focused on improving the throughput of these methods in order to analyze larger sample sets in shorter amounts of time. These platforms started to support many new projects and collaborations, so together with my PhD advisor, Kirk Hansen, and another Associate Professor in the department, Angelo D’Alessandro, we founded Omix Technologies to address the R&D needs of the regenerative medicine and transfusion medicine markets. In addition to Omix, I’ve also been managing a new project at CU to apply these platforms towards understanding metabolic characteristics of elite athletes, including some cyclists from the Tour de France that just wrapped up a few months ago. The nice thing about platform technologies is that there are few limitations on what you can study.
What made you decide to become a VIC Fellow and what has been your experience so far?
In addition to my involvement with startups, I had interned with OnBioVC, a Boulder-based firm that focused on aggregating metrics of VC investments in life sciences. I spent most of my time studying the background of all of these startups and their target market sectors, and really started to understand the magnitude of these types of investments. Seeing the call for VIC Fellow applications presented an opportunity to learn about life science investing from the other side of the table. So far, the experience has been exactly what I was hoping for – not only better understanding the specific details of fundraising and development strategies, but also a really enlightening process of assessing potential investment opportunities. These experiences have really helped me fine tune concepts that were more abstract and amorphous to me prior to starting the fellowship.
Based on your personal areas of interest, what types of technologies and investment opportunities are you focusing on or gravitating towards?
Having a background in metabolism, I’m naturally interested in therapeutics and diagnostics targeting this area. Of all of the biological systems (i.e. genome, transcriptome, proteome, and metabolome), the metabolome sits closest to, and most strongly influences the phenotype. The revival of metabolism in cancer research over the past 10-15 years has started to produce some remarkable results, for example. There are a number of drug candidates now in development pipelines that target various aspects of aberrant metabolism, and I think that these have some real potential to significantly improve patient outcomes. In addition, technologies that can measure metabolism and physiology can expand diagnostic potential. Examples of these are wearable devices that monitor heart rate and body temperature, but I think that as we start to learn more about the molecular signatures of health and disease, we will start to see technologies emerge that can measure physiology with higher resolution.
What trends in life science do you see emerging?
People are becoming increasingly familiarized with their personal data, and I can see that trend continuing as health awareness increases. I think it will start to move into the protein and metabolite realms as well as we start to understand what all of these variables and signatures actually mean. From the genetics standpoint, there has been increasing adoption of genotyping tumor biopsies, and this practice also will expand into the other biological systems. The ability to stratify these patients based on tumor genetic and metabolic signatures, for example, will help direct personalized care. This trend may bolster development of targeted therapies based on unmet needs. Since the attrition rate in drug discovery is fiscally unsustainable, the drug development process must be made more efficient. Streamlining can occur through the development of high-throughput data generation platforms that can provide better therapeutic candidates, either novel or repurposed, early on in the process. Making use of these big datasets will require implementation of complex data analysis and management strategies. I know it’s somewhat of a catchall buzzword, but once these datasets are large enough, artificial intelligence is going to foster a new era of innovation.
How do you think COVID-19 will affect these trends?
COVID-19 has significantly limited lab operations, clinical trials and overall R&D efforts. Unfortunately, I think this could delay drug development in areas that are not directly related to COVID treatment and prevention. However, as we are in desperate need for treatments and don’t have the time it would take to develop drugs de novo, recent efforts to repurpose compounds that have already passed Phase I safety trials using high-throughput drug screening strategies and AI have identified new candidates that are closer to becoming viable treatments. In addition to improving the drug development process, repurposing may reveal some compounds with previously unappreciated anti-inflammatory properties. Considering the role that inflammation plays in many age-related diseases, new strategies could emerge to improve health span.
In addition, I can see the health monitoring space really picking up during the pandemic as people’s awareness and overall interest in their health and wellbeing pique. On top of sequencing our own DNA to predict susceptibility to infection and COVID symptoms as more data become available, we can use the same sequencing data to determine our optimal diets and exercise plans. As understanding improves regarding biomarkers of health and disease, we’ll start to see improved wearable and other point-of-care and in-home devices to monitor our health and wellbeing.
You have significant entrepreneurial experience. Do you see yourself staying in this area or do you plan pursuing opportunities in the investment sector?
I actually see these two areas as being fairly interconnected especially within a group like VIC, who is identifying opportunities that haven’t yet been commercialized and starting new companies with its own internal resources to translate to market. Starting new companies and developing new technologies and therapies goes hand in hand with managing the capital to do so. I think having entrepreneurial experience can make a good investor, and likewise, having a good investment background can help guide new entrepreneurial activities. Ultimately, I hope I have the opportunity to gravitate back and forth between these roles throughout my career.
Any words of wisdom for folks interested in applying to the Fellows program?
Apply! This fellowship has been a great experience to learn how decisions are made within an investment firm. In addition to assessing new technologies and therapies, we have also been writing grants to fund the development of some of these opportunities. Experience in determining which opportunities to pursue, and articulating a plan to achieve those goals, goes beyond investing and will be helpful in aspects of many careers.