AxoSim, which was spun out of Tulane University in 2014, has been busy over the past decade positioning itself to be one of the top companies in its corner of the biotech world: nonanimal drug testing for degenerative neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The company's technology uses "biomimetic" techniques — drawing on engineering, chemistry and biology to mimic biological processes — that allow quicker and more efficient drug testing than lengthy animal and human-based methods.
The company last month completed its first major acquisition, buying Vyant Bio’s Minneapolis-based StemoniX subsidiary for an undisclosed amount. The purchase will add StemoniX's drug-testing platform and 14,000 square feet of additional research, development and manufacturing space at the other end of the Mississippi River.
Here, Lowry Curley, the company's founder and CEO, talks about the fast-changing trends afoot that are propelling companies like AxoSim from the frontier of biotech into the mainstream.
One broad trend driving the market is the growing preference for non-animal testing by drug companies. According to a recent study by Allied Market Research, the world non-animal alternative testing market is forecast to grow from $9.8 billion in 2021 to nearly $30 billion by 2030, an annual growth rate of more than 13%.
Curley says the pace is even quicker for neurological testing because animal testing there is even more unreliable than for other diseases.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There have been some major changes to clinical testing that affect prospects for companies like AxoSim. How do you see things developing?
Our space is maturing very, very quickly. Last December, the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] Modernization Act 2.0 was passed. It's a bit of a mouthful, but essentially it changed the language so that for an FDA filing to get a new drug in a clinical trial, they replaced the words "animal testing" with the words "human relevant testing." That really is signaling that while we still need animals, and we still need to build trust in our platforms, it's clear that the writing is on the wall that our platforms are getting more predictive and efficient than traditional methods.
How quickly do you see that being adopted?
Pharmaceutical companies have taken note. Roche Pharmaceuticals has launched what they're calling their Institute of Human Biology. Essentially, they're coming in with over 150 scientists over the next couple of years to both develop their own 3D tools and to acquire other companies and to start using other companies' products. So, our biggest focus right now is partnering. We want to be more than just a service provider. We want to partner with someone and say "Let's develop a drug together."
Your new acquisition, what does it tell you about how your industry is consolidating?
We started around the same time as StemoniX and we thought initially these guys were going to be our big competitors. Ultimately, we realized as we dug in with this acquisition that it's so hard to do what we're doing, to develop the technology that is reproducible and so on, that our technologies are complementary. They take us into epilepsy and seizures. So, a lot of the competitors I look at are potential collaborators that maybe we acquire. Or maybe someone with deep pockets wants to roll us all up together. Or, one of the big pharma companies, like a Roche or GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, they want to acquire effective technology without spending a lot of time and money.
Let me ask you also how your success so far and your plans for the future plays into the broader outlook for New Orleans and its ambition to develop the biotech sector, especially through the recently created BioDistrict.
I am on the board [of the BioDistrict] and it's really exciting to see us get some momentum. But I would like to see us fast-forward three years to when Charity [Hospital's $500 million redevelopment] comes online. Then the BioDistrict has the kind of funds it needs to invest in infrastructure. That's not just labs where hopefully the next AxoSim doesn't have to build out of the graduate facilities but the shared infrastructure is there. Also, the BioDistrict is investing in beautification and services and all these different things so the district itself really means something. New Orleans just doesn't have the veteran biotechnology people already. So, when you're recruiting them, we need to show that we belong. We'd love to get to where we can sponsor grant matching and workforce development and at that point, really be able to invest in how we help these companies grow beyond just the space and beyond just the school. That is is going to take time but I'm enjoying being a part of that.