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January 07, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Scientific discovery propels Zemel on his unexpected entrepreneurial journey

NuSirt Biopharma(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series focused on Michael Zemel, Chief Scientific Officer of NuSirt Biopharma, a company founded on research undertaken by Zemel while he was on the faculty of the University of Tennessee {UT}. It is also part of an ongoing series spotlighting start-ups founded on technologies licensed from the UT Research Foundation.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

The discovery that a single amino acid could fuel the breakdown of fats propelled then University of Tennessee (UT) researcher Michael Zemel on an entrepreneurial path that he had not considered when he came to Knoxville.

“I began developing intellectual property and working with Fred Tompkins,” Zemel said, referring to the then President of the UT Research Foundation. The goal was to build a platform.

“I would not ask to start a company for a one-hit wonder,” Zemel said.

Unfortunately, the great recession was just underway as he was trying to launch his start-up. On the positive side, Zemel found Tech 2020, worked with its staff, and actually secured a small loan that has since been repaid.

Things suddenly changed in 2010 with the creation of the TNInvestco program.

“We secured an initial investment from Tennessee Community Ventures and later from the Limestone Fund and Mountain Group Capital,” Zemel explained. In fact, Joe Cook, Jr., one of the Founders of Limestone and Mountain Group, is President and Executive Chairman of NuSirt.

The journey from starting the company in 2007 to today has not been linear, as most entrepreneurs understand. Today, Zemel serves as Founder and Chief Scientific Officer.

“We had sharp pivots along the way,” he says in describing the start-up.

The initial goal was to be a nutraceutical company bringing pharmaceutical rigor to the process.

“We wanted justified claims,” Zemel says in explaining his goal of being able to prove any claims the company made about its impact on energy metabolism. He still bristles at what he describes as “unscrupulous players (who) make exaggerated claims . . . make millions . . . (and) eventually apologize.”

That quote says a great deal about Zemel and the value system that he brings to NuSirt.

Initially, he planned to license the technology that NuSirt was developing, but Zemel quickly discovered “the money was in marketing products,” so NuSirt did the proverbial “start-up pivot.”

The product development coincided with another important discovery by the NuSirt scientific team – combining Leucine with Metformin, one of the most commonly-prescribed medications for diabetes, can make a significant difference. While Metformin is a good, cheap and effective drug, it also has side effects such as stomach aches.

Enter NuSirt and a co-activation plan to address the side effects while also reducing the required dosage and increasing efficacy.

Zemel explains that, as the company’s name implies, NuSirt has focused on a class of proteins called Sirtuins, specifically Sirt 1. The research further uncovered the fact that Leucine, an amino acid, can “set-up the Sirt 1 system so that it can be more easily activated by compounds.”

A new patent, based on this research, was issued in 2013 and a second in 2014.

“Another dozen or so are pending,” Zemel says proudly.

Today, NuSirt is in the midst of clinical trials with 100 patients at eight research sites. In a separate interview, Barbara Cannon, NuSirt’s Chief Operating Officer, said the trials should be completed by the end of the year.

“Our strategy is to use the NuSirt technology in combination with existing pharmaceuticals already judged to be safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” Zemel explained.

There are more ideas, including a technology focused on fatty liver disease.

NEXT: How the region’s ecosystem supported NuSirt.

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