Start-up executives share insights on impact of COVID-19 during first day of ‘LSTCON 2020″

After two solid panel discussions late yesterday afternoon, “LSTCON 2020” – Life Science Tennessee’s (LST) annual conference – returns at 11 a.m. EDT/10 a.m. CDT for more programming in its first-ever virtual format. Five workshops during the day precede the annual “Venture Forum” featuring three start-ups (see recent article).

Yesterday’s first panel featured top executives from four Tennessee-based companies in the sector that are trying to raise capital, maintain a quality workforce, and bring life-saving solutions to market in the most challenging environment for any start-up. The panelists were:

  • Jenn Adams, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of August Bioservices and a 30-year plus veteran of the healthcare sector whose latest venture is a drug discovery, clinical development and clinical manufacturing company that relocated to Nashville three months ago after purchasing a Nashville company;
  • Kayla Graff, Co-Founder and CEO of SweetBio Inc. where she is bringing to market APIS, a bioengineered product for management of chronic and acute wounds based on honey;
  • Brian Laden, President and Chief Operating Officer of Appello Pharmaceuticals Inc. that is focused on improving the lives of Parkinson’s disease patients; and
  • Dan Liebler, President and CEO of Protypia Inc., a biotechnology company that provides analytical proteomics solutions to support the development of new immunotherapeutics for oncology and autoimmune diseases.

Moderated by outgoing LST Chair Ted Townsend, the panel provided interesting and somewhat different insights on how COVID-19 has impacted them. For example, Liebler, a former Vanderbilt University faculty member, said he founded the company in January 2017 with his own money and has grown the start-up organically, but is now raising a Series A round. “It (making connections) seems faster,” he said, noting the greater availability of investors due to continuing travel restrictions.

That history was very different from the story Adams related as the company started its due diligence that led to the acquisition of PMI BioPharma in June. She said that August Bioservices had planned a site visit the second week in March to look at the PMI facilities in Nashville, but had to revert to a virtual tour and only had its only onsite visit days before the acquisition closed. “It wasn’t so much raising capital as it was deploying it,” Adams said of what she described as the “capital dynamic in a pandemic.”

In the case of SweetBio, Graff said that the Memphis-based company has raised about $4 million with another round nearing completion. Prior to the novel coronavirus era, she said 90 percent of the funding had come from Tennessee investors. Now, with elevated interest in diversity – she’s of Hispanic origin, Graff has been able to get meetings with venture firms outside Tennessee that had been impossible earlier.

Laden described why that might be the case. “Funds are out there that have money they need to deploy,” he said, adding that those that are known entities to them have a leg-up, but new start-ups will probably have challenges.

Graff emphasized the even higher interest that investors have in the answer to a key question: “How are you going to win against your competitors?” In the case of SweetBio, she says her answer includes the importance of the APIS wound treatment due to the heightened risk for COVID-19 for those with wounds that have not healed.

The second panel of yesterday’s session featured a discussion about the role of public policy in advancing the life science sector. It included retiring First District Congressman Phil Roe and State Senator Shane Reeves.

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