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Calista Therapeutics captures SBIR award, awaits word on next round at MassChallenge

Portrait of a Rhode Island entrepreneur on the verge

Courtesy of Andrew Mallon

Andrew Mallon, CEO of Calista Therapeutics in Lincoln, at the May 2 awards ceremony hosted by the Tech Collective, Rhode Island’s bioscience and IT industry association, one of six to be honored as a bioscience champion in research, quality and education.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/30/13
For all the recent activity supporting startups and entrepreneurs in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem, the success of Andrew Mallon and Calista Therapeutics highlights some of the missing infrastructure that’s not yet in place.
Mallon’s selection as a finalist in the MassChallenge is demonstrative of the challenge – how does a biotech entrepreneur who is not university- or hospital-based in Rhode Island find traction?
For example, Ocean State Angels, a newly created investment fund looking to invest in commercializing life science companies, made its first investment (of an unspecified amount) in Tivorsan Pharmaceuticals, a company based upon 25 years of research by Justin Fallon, a Brown University professor.
The Slater Technology Fund had already invested some $500,000 in the company.
As Rhode Island’s government apparatus for economic development continues to evolve under the legislative-ordered mandate, there still appears to be a disconnect about how best to invest government resources into programs and initiatives that will create jobs, grow the knowledge economy, and support regional economic expansion.
When will the economic development officials decide to take advantage of the wealth of experience, information and resources available in Massachusetts by talking with the leaders of the John Adams Innovation Institute? The agency has been the driver of most of the successful economic development initiatives in the Bay State for the past decade.
The development of MedMates as an independent cluster group to support biotech and med-tech companies in Rhode Island has shifted a bit in recent months to align itself with the R.I. Economic Development Corporation and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, with employees of both playing key organizing roles with MedMates. The group has also received $50,000 funding from the Rhode Island Foundation. While a broad coalescing of resources around growing the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island has great promise, it remains unclear what the group's future economic and political vision will be. And, what is the role that lesser-established startup companies can play, participate and have a voice in decision-making.

PROVIDENCE – Andrew Mallon, CEO of Calista Therapeutics in Lincoln, told ConvergenceRI he was thrilled by the recent Small Business Innovation Research award of $224,993 from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will support his company’s work on an innovative inhaled peptide drug technology platform to attack the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis, a lethal disease that afflicts about 30,000 young people in the United States.

Calista’s peptide drug has been found to stabilize a defective ion channel in lung epithelial membranes, providing a potential avenue for improved clinical management of cystic fibrosis patients, according to experts who reviewed the company’s SBIR proposal.

The SBIR award follows on the heels of the company’s recent provisional patent application for its drug technology platform.

Current treatments do not address the underlying cause for more than 96 percent of cystic fibrosis patients, according to Mallon. Calista’s new drug therapy is targeted at this untreated patient population.

The life expectancy for cystic fibrosis patients is about 37 years; it is the second-most widespread life-shortening inherited disease.

The public face of cystic fibrosis and its suffering has often been far below the radar screen. That changed recently, when Sarah Murnaghan, an 11-year-old, received a double-lung transplant, after her parents challenged the national policy surrounding child organ transplants. Murnagahn had been through a childhood battle with cystic fibrosis that had led to her deteriorating lungs losing function.

“This grant will accelerate our efforts toward ultimately finding a cure for cystic fibrosis,” Mallon said.

Founded in May of 2012, Calista Therapeutics’ team of biotech professionals experienced in drug discovery and development includes Gary Robinson, COO; Ron Wolff, vice president of Pre-Clinical Research, and Alvin Bach, a co-inventor with Mallon of Calista Therapeutics’ inhaled peptide drug technology platform.

The task ahead for Calista, as with any biotech entrepreneur is daunting, Mallon admitted. “To be able to make the drugs, we need to be able to [bring in more] money,” he said.

Making the next round at MassChallenge?
More exciting news may await Mallon this week, selected in June as one of 128 finalists in the 2013 MassChallenge, from some 1,200 startup entrepreneurs who applied.

This week MassChallenge is slated to announce which 28 entrepreneurs will be chosen for the final round of judging before a panel of VIP judges, and then to an awards ceremony on Oct. 30 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Mallon told ConvergenceRI that he is cautiously optimistic, based on the feedback he has gotten from his mentors.

MassChallenge bills itself as one of the world’s largest accelerator and startup program. Its aim is to address the gap between the resources entrepreneurs need and the ability of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to provide them.

“The world is full of great ideas, but only a few become reality,” MassChallenge’s said on its website. “Novice entrepreneurs require advice, resources and funding to bring their ideas to fruition.”

The opportunity to participate in the four-month accelerator program as part of being chosen in the round of 128 finalists in MassChallenge has proven to have been invaluable according to Mallon, who has received world-class mentorship, training and free office space. Mallon said he hope that other Rhode Island entrepreneurs would apply to compete in the MassChallenge acceleerator nexzt year.

Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rhode Island
Mallon has been very active as a member of two of the emerging biotech cluster groups here in Rhode Island, R.I. BioScience Leaders and MedMates.

With R.I. BioScience Leaders, a group of some 25 CEOs, he helped to win passage from the R.I. General Assembly of $500,000 to provide matching grants to SBIR award winners from Rhode Island. Mallon is now involved in an effort to improve the initial legislation, creating guidelines to ensure it bcomes a catalyst for business growth in the state's knowledge economy. 

Working with the R.I. Tech Collaborative and MedMates, a new group organized to support businesses and entrepreneurs in the biotech sector, Mallon has suggested that the groups follow in the footsteps of what Massachusetts has done and organize a biotech legislative caucus, enabling legislative leaders to be kept informed and briefed on a regular basis.

That effort is now working its way through the committee process at MedMates, according to recent communication from that group.

“Through a biotech caucus, we can converse with legislators, enabling them to be well-informed on the issues affecting the biotech entrepreneurial community,” Mallon said.

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