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December 12, 2019 | Tom Ballard

New start-up ZoeVET focused on frequently fatal disease in horses called laminitis

Michelle French is taking on a new challenge in the life science sector, something she never thought she would pursue when she first connected nearly a decade ago with Bem Culiat, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) scientist and established a close friendship.

At the time, French was Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Animal Element Inc., a business launched in 2008 that was selling more than 15 different nutritional supplements and vitamins for horses, pets and livestock in the U.S. and several countries abroad. She founded and operated the company in Oliver Springs, TN.

Culiat is the Founder, President and Chief Scientific Officer of her own start-up named NellOne Therapeutics Inc. which is focused on tissue healing after acute injuries, both in humans and animals.

From the connection that occurred about eight years ago, the two have built a strong friendship that has now resulted in French taking the lead in commercializing some of the work that Culiat pioneered around utilizing a novel signaling protein called Nell1 for tissue regeneration.

“I told Bem she needed to carve out the vet space,” French said, quickly adding with a laugh and big smile, “I had no intention of doing this.” Yet, she’s doing exactly that in a new venture French launched in December 2018, with an exclusive license to use an improved form and manufacturing of the Nell1 protein to address major unmet clinical needs in the animal healthcare space.

The start-up, French’s third, is named ZoeVET LLC and is initially focused on a very severe and frequently fatal disease called laminitis, a cause of severe lameness in horses. It is an affliction of the soft tissue structures that attach the coffin or pedal bone of the foot to the hoof wall. The inflammation and damage to the laminae causes extreme pain and leads to instability of the coffin bone in the hoof.

About 15 percent of the 9.5 million horses in the U.S. and between four and 15 percent of the 58 million horses worldwide are estimated to be afflicted with the disease in their lifetime. The standard costs of care depend on severity but can quickly escalate up to $30,000.

“There is really no consistent effective treatment right now,” French says. “Most owners try to make the animal comfortable and hope the problem resolves over time. However, many of these cases recur in a year or two, continue to incur huge medical costs and a very poor quality of life for the horses. For competitive horses, a diagnosis of laminitis can end a promising lucrative racing career and long-term breeding potential. In the worst cases, it leads to euthanasia.”

Although French had initially thought about an application of the NELL1 technology for joint injuries, she decided to tackle laminitis as the first product for ZoeVET after careful consideration and consultation with Culiat; various experts in the science (veterinarians and researchers); and her own vast network of entrepreneurs, marketing and distribution professionals in the veterinary space.

Culiat is the inventor of an UT-Battelle/ORNL technology with 17 issued patents in eight countries and a NellOne Therapeutics-owned patent pending.

For French, all of these inputs, coupled with her own life-long passion to make a huge difference in the quality of life of animals, made a compelling rationale for a laminitis drug product.

ZoeVET is beginning proof-of-concept trials in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved site that has successfully tested various veterinary drugs and devices for start-ups and large pharma. The data will provide the necessary information to understand the best path to market.

French says it was “God’s timing” that led to her willingness to launch the new venture. Her partner in Animal Element wanted to purchase her interest in the business, and she saw another calling as well as a great opportunity for re-investing her proceeds from the sale in a new start-up. The global animal market is currently valued at $35 billion and projected at $60 billion by 2025. Current mergers and acquisitions in the past year ranged from $250 million to $2 billion.

For the now serial entrepreneur, it’s an exciting time to be entering the biotech veterinary space, marked by a great momentum building-up and aggressive efforts to harness highly innovative products typically developed/reserved for human health issues to use for animals.

“Everything in life preps you for the next stage,” French says, noting that her last company prepared her well for the more regulated biotech space where she is now based. The nutritional supplement industry is unregulated, but French voluntarily registered and complied with the quality, safety and consistency standards of the National Animal Supplement Council.

French approaches things with a refreshing philosophy. As far as the future, she says, “We’re only limited by our imagination with applying this regenerative tissue technology. I embrace big challenges and attempt what has never been done. That’s how I’m wired.”

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