ELN Executive Interview Series:
Rick Coulon, President & CEO, Accuitis Pharmaceuticals Inc.
By Ishaneka Williams, MBA
ELN Small Business Liaison
What motivated you to enter the pharmaceuticals industry and start Accuitis Pharmaceuticals?
Innovation. The pharmaceutical and life sciences industry is an area where real innovation is rewarded and there's always a need — you are able to make direct impacts to people’s lives. My journey in the pharma industry began through associations with pharmaceutical organizations such as Novartis, Steifel Laboratories, Akorn, and their subsidiaries. I continued to be inspired by the work I did: meeting the unmet healthcare needs and driving innovation in patient care developing a particular passion for dermatological therapies. Additionally, the pharmaceutical industry has a unique marketplace; when new innovations are introduced, the value recognized by companies’ shareholders and investors are immediate.
Lastly, I have a consulting business in strategy and business development, so I really was able to give sweat equity and understand the amount of work required to start Accuitis.
How did your experiences with Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) influence your decision to launch? Did they help you overcome any memorable challenges and/or hurdles?
The biggest challenge in the Accuitis start-up was attracting funding but, with the right type of guidance, it was achieved. Jack Arbiser of Emory’s OTT provided Accuitis with the tools, direction and social capital to attract the right mentors to help us course correct (this is extremely important when starting your company) and build a best in class team including a highly experienced board.
Do you find that the ecosystem of bioscience start-ups in Georgia is supported? Would you say that organizations such as the Bio/Med Investor Network or Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) have helped foster the well-being of the start-up community?
Both the Bio/Med Investor Network and GRA were with us every step of the way; they treated us as a valuable asset, helped to attract capital, provided advice, and stood with us in the trenches. Maintaining realistic expectations is important when starting an organization because you find that everything is important and you need to be accountable. GRA helped us to benchmark what's realistic in terms of funding, plans and timelines.
Additionally, these organizations provided critical financial resources to Accuitis, “putting their skin in the game”. We wouldn't be here if they weren't here; they're essential to the ecosystem of start-ups in Georgia.
Are there any new developments Accuitis has in the pipeline that you can share?
Our lead program ACU-D1 is progressing nicely; it is a topical proteasome inhibitor targeting inflammatory skin disorders such as rosacea and psoriasis. We are anticipating starting our phase 1-2 study in healthy patents with rosacea in the fall of 2016. This will be a pivotal event in increasing the value of Accuitis.
Do you see any challenges Accuitis may be facing in industry? How do you think this might evolve?
Consolidation of the key players in the pharmaceutical industry by companies who are not committed to R&D spending and are primarily interested in licensing late stage development or commercial assets. This is off-set by the trend of traditional R&D focused pharmaceutical companies acquiring early stage assets with supporting clinical to augment their current pipeline.
What opportunities do you see for Georgia Bio and the life sciences industry locally?
Georgia is home. When you start a new company, the infrastructure created by GRA, Georgia Bio and OTT at Emory has created a strong infrastructure and help attract the capital to support and take companies to the next level. We have a infrastructure here that is necessary to develop a product (pharma or medical device). The Georgia community is an attractive place for companies like Accuitis to flourish and grow. Having this level of support and growth is important to leverage the systems — universities and supportive — to breed success. For instance, the BioMed investors network have allowed us to go further with less money. That's been incredibly important to our existing investors. One of the things we’re lacking in our infrastructure is venture capital (VC), but that's not a major challenge due to its nature. The VC community scouts out opportunities everywhere.
It’s an infectious environment. One example is of the companies that have left the state, Georgia has retained their talent. These scientists that have remained formed new companies from the ashes of those companies that have left. Georgia Bio and GRA have been essential to building and creating the foundation- keeping the intellectual talent in the state and closing the gap.
Would you like to share any advice to young professionals who are early in their career or to those aspiring entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical/healthcare industry?
If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, get out there — go to industry events, become active with Georgia Bio and seek out mentors in the industry. These are critical to your success.
Don't be afraid to fail, which for an entrepreneur is not getting your idea off the ground. Execute, move forward and be patient. Aggressively pursue the vision, receive advice and take it. Don't be afraid to ask, ask again and hear no. Have confidence and a good business case, and think through the key issues. Key to success for Accuitis early on was the Southeast Bio Business Plan Competition. Accuitis won the competition! Our participation gave us the opportunity to get clear and lay out the blueprint for what the future of Accuitis would look like. It helped to create the base for Accuitis. Although the base has changed, it gave us a creditable platform.
The company formed in 2011 and is just hitting critical mass. Its major milestone is a drug going into development this quarter. Key elements to movement have been capital, director development, clinical development, and to move the drug into the clinic.