Alumni Profile: Nano Precision Medical

Adam and Kayte

Adam and Kayte in the lab. Photo by Euan Slorach.

Nano Precision Medical, Inc. is a startup company developing implantable drug delivery systems, founded by BioE alums Kayte Fischer (Ph.D. ’10), Adam Mendelsohn (Ph.D. ’11), and Lily Peng (Ph.D. ’10).

Nano Precision Medical began with a business plan competition in the Berkeley Nanotechnology Club for Adam, Kayte and Lily – all graduate students in UCSF Professor Tejal Desai’s laboratory. From there the team went on to win the 2008 Berkeley Business Plan competition as Titan Medical, then to change their name to Nano Precision Medical and win other domestic and international competitions.

NPM was founded by the three alumni and is currently managed by Adam, Kayte and new staff, with Lily in an advisory role at NPM and working full-time for another local startup. After raising two financing rounds, they are currently in pre-clinical development of implantable drug delivery systems that will provide long-term, constant-rate delivery of therapeutic proteins for the treatment of chronic diseases. NPM is located in the East Bay Innovation Center, a part of the QB3 incubator network.

What is your job now, and how did you get there from grad school?

KAYTE – I am the CTO and informally the COO at Nano Precision Medical, Inc. Adam, Lily, and I worked within feet of each other in Tejal Desai’s lab, so Lily and Adam had front row seats when I was president of the Berkeley Nanotechnology Club and was bemoaning our lack of business plan contestants. We decided to enter together, won several different competitions, and started down the path to NPM.

I’ve always been a note taker and organizer, so as Lily (an MD/PhD) was talking to clinicians and Adam was talking to business people, I would collect the information and make sure we were good to go forward. When we started the company, I took over running the technology development in addition to my informal role in operations (which I learned is a business word for “getting things done correctly on time”).

ADAM – I am the current CEO of NPM. When we started entering business plan competitions, Kayte, Lily and I all had several years left in graduate school, and none of us were working on the technology envisioned by NPM as part of our research. As a result, several years passed before we committed ourselves to seeing the idea through, during which time we were able to obtain extensive feedback and relevant education from mentors, courses we took at the Haas School of Business, and seminars we attended organized by QB3 and the Venture Innovation Program in Life Sciences. QB3 has been instrumental, both by organizing a catalyst grant for the project while we were still at the university and by setting up the incubator infrastructure that allows us to rent small amounts of space in a fully-equipped wet-lab environment.

Upon incorporation, I started to take responsibility for our company’s financing and intellectual property negotiations. Having been table-side at numerous relevant conversations throughout my childhood as a result of my father’s medical device financing activities, and having had experience working within a startup medical device company previously, I found these challenges to be both interesting and achievable, which led to my taking on the role of CEO within the company. 

What was your research focus in graduate school?

ADAM – I worked on the development of a bioartificial pancreas for the treatment of type I diabetes.  A promising method of treating this disease involves the transplantation of functioning pancreatic beta-cells, the cells which are responsible for insulin production and which no longer function in patients with this disease. These cells, found in larger clusters of cells called Islets of Langerhans, do not function well when separated, but the Islets do not remain sufficiently operational when transplanted whole. My work involved developing a method to engineer precisely-sized pancreatic beta-cell clusters and study the effect that discrete sizes had on cellular behavior. The ultimate goal is to encapsulate these clusters in a nanoporous membrane that isolates the cells from the recipient’s immune system, which would enable transplantation to occur without immunosuppression and provide an effective cure for type I diabetes. While Nano Precision Medical is commercializing one version of a nanoporous membrane for drug delivery, my initial exposure to them was as a cell-encapsulating material.

KAYTE – I investigated the interactions between silicon nanowires and mucosal membranes, like the gastrointestinal tract, nasal passages, and eyes. Mucosal membranes are interesting for drug delivery applications because they tend to have a high surface area and are accessible from the outside. Silicon nanowires can get through their thick, gelatinous mucus layer to come into direct contact with the cells below, and can interdigitate with the microvilli lining some membranes like Velcro, anchoring the wires close to the cells even when the mucus layer is flowing over them.

I explored these interactions with different nanowire sizes and shapes, surface chemistries, and with different tissue/cell types. Mostly, I used the nanowires to anchor larger drug carrying microspheres. Ultimately, we would like to load the microspheres with therapeutics, and be able to take them orally as a pill or in other areas as an ointment or spray. Because they can contact the cells directly, the nanowire-microsphere devices could release drug directly to the areas in need, increasing efficiency and bioavailability, and could prolong the drug release somewhat by staying attached longer.

What was the most unexpected thing about startup life?

ADAM – While I fully anticipated the financing, technical, and legal challenges associated with startup life, it took some time to appreciate the human resource considerations involved in managing the diverse personalities of our team as we grow. Fortunately, I had terrific mentors and advisers with whom I am in regular contact regarding all issues, and I would recommend to anyone considering this path to surround themselves with experienced, even-keeled mentors.

KAYTE – When you are in graduate school, or even a postdoc, you have an advisor who has the ultimate say over your project, team, and working conditions. While not exactly unexpected, the extent of the freedom and power of making those decisions without a boss, other than the board of directors, is both awesome and terrifying, especially right out of graduate school.

What is awesome about your job?

KAYTE – What I most like about my job is that every day brings a new and different challenge from the previous one.  Working in a startup means that you get to do some of everything. I get to plan and conduct experiments, but also work on our operations, manufacturing scale-up, intellectual property, and even strategic business decisions. Admittedly, science and development are never easy, but what is nice is that we usually have several projects, so when one is not going the way we want, there are others that are. Starting your own company means that you have the power and pressure of hiring new people and creating a workplace culture; I have really enjoyed building a team that can bring a brand new product from a figment of our imaginations into tangible reality and hopefully forward into use to help many people.

What do you want to do next?

ADAM – Right now I am completely focused on Nano Precision Medical, and I will have to see how this turns out before determining the next steps. However, I would like to stay in a startup environment, or at least an environment that is focused on developing products that will benefit people.

Any advice for people out there thinking of creating their own company? What type of person is suited for the startup life?

ADAM – Starting Nano Precision Medical has been the most educational, inspirational, and rewarding experience I have ever had. If I had the opportunity again, I would take it in a heartbeat. If you have an idea that you believe in, the only way to find out whether it is truly viable is to first immerse yourself completely in it. 

KAYTE – Starting a company from scratch has been amazing – sometimes you want to pinch yourself to see if this thing you thought of actually exists now. I think people who will be most satisfied by starting their own company are those who like to be involved in many different types of activities, research and otherwise, who are comfortable without authority or certainty, who are flexible, and who are excited about the good times and can endure the bad times. I would also note that it helps to be 100% confident in your choice of co-founders – you spend a lot of time with them!

 What makes bioengineering exciting as a field to be involved with?

ADAM – There is a tremendous acceleration in the amount of knowledge being obtained about biological systems right now. As a result, I believe there are many opportunities for individuals to discover novel and relevant solutions to clinical needs that were not previously possible. Bioengineering is the perfect place to become exposed to these scientific advances and take them into new and exciting directions with real practical applications that can be achieved within our lifetime.

What do you miss about Berkeley/UCSF and graduate school?

KAYTE – I really enjoyed the pace of exploration in graduate school. Now, many of our efforts focus on making things much more consistent, like you would need to pass the FDA, which can slow down experimentation somewhat. I also found going to talks and conferences and meeting new people to be very stimulating.

Any advice for current students?

ADAM – My advice is to take advantage of the numerous opportunities to participate in networking events outside of your comfort zone. You will not always have such easy access to these opportunities.  And lastly, maximize the enjoyment of your years in school. They are precious, and while they may seem long while you’re there, you will miss them when you are gone.

KAYTE – I would also suggest taking enough time off. Sometimes, the pressure in graduate school can make it feel like if you take any time off, the whole project will slide. Most of the time, that is not true. In graduate school, as at any time in life, it is important to take care of yourself and enjoy the quirks that only grad school has to offer.