By Robert Wright, Life Science Leader
Translational research, the process of translating early discoveries into effective treatments for patients, is sometimes referred to as the “Valley of Death.” Why? Because it’s time consuming, costly, and has a rate of success hovering around 1 percent. I recently met a scientist who had experienced the Valley of Death firsthand. And rather than have her valley experience be her demise, she instead opted to develop a novel solution. This is her story.
FROM SCIENTIST, TO PATENT EXPERT, TO CEO, TO OUT OF BUSINESS
Mona Jhaveri completed her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Wake Forest University before doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). “We had a discovery in the lab that was patentable,” she explained. “It was a potential antisense therapy that was discovered by accident.” But the chief in the lab decided to prematurely leave, the lab was then dissolved, and Dr. Jhaveri had to scramble to finish her post-doc. As a result, the discovery languished, and Jhaveri soon found herself working at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in New York City. “I didn’t work there as a scientist; I was more of a patent person for their portfolio,” she explains. That’s where she learned all the ins and outs of patents.
In 2004, she moved back to Washington, D.C. Not long after, Jhaveri became the founder and CEO of Foligo Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on the development of molecular-based therapeutics and diagnostics toward improving care of women with ovarian cancer. “The NCI was willing to give me back my inventor’s rights, as the lab was gone and they didn’t see any value in pursuing it,” she elaborates. Patent in hand from her post-doc work, she took ownership of the IP, and that’s what she built Foligo around. At the time, there was a lot of support for women in the D.C. area to launch startups, so she applied and was accepted into a course that trained her how to do just that. There were also state grant monies available, and she accessed these to get the company up and running. But the money came in dribs and drabs, and as she had also started a family, Jhaveri was finding being an entrepreneur challenging. “Attending conferences, pitching the company, and networking while being a mother with young children was a real struggle, to put it mildly,” she admits. Undeterred, she found a lobbyist to help with the networking aspect. This enabled her to meet a lot of people where she began exploring various funding mechanisms.
“When the crash happened in 2007/2008, the angel investors I had been reaching out to were no longer willing to invest,” she elaborates. Realizing she needed more money than she seemed capable of raising at the time, Jhaveri soon decided to shut the company down. But as she reflected on her unsuccessful entrepreneurial journey she thought, “What’s really missing when founding a biopharmaceutical startup is access to non-dilutive funds,” she states. Because there’s a lot of great ideas, you can’t prove the principle for cancer innovations via investor dollars. What was needed was “passion money.”
THE CREATION OF A SOLUTION TO THE VALLEY OF DEATH
Though there isn’t a formal definition, the general idea of “passion money” is monies given to a cause for which someone is extremely passionate. As the era of equity crowdfunding had begun to gain momentum (in 2011/2012), one of Jhaveri’s mentors, aware of her experiences as (1) scientist, (2) biotech entrepreneur, and (3) Valley of Death victim, suggested she consider creating a charitable crowdfunding platform. “I blindly said, ‘That sounds good,’ not realizing how difficult it would actually be,” she says. But first, she needed to figure out how it could be done.
Seeing that many charities used celebrities to raise money, this was one of her initial ideas. But how do you gain access, and how do you find those celebrities who’d actually want to do something in the space where you want to do it, which in Jhaveri’s case, was raising money to help early-stage biotechs focused on cancer? “And even if you do find them, celebrities typically want to get paid more than you can afford,” she adds. Over time, she dropped the celebrity idea in favor of targeting emerging artists — those up-and-comers out to make a name for themselves. “I thought emerging artists would be better as influencers for us,” she states. Why? Well for starters, they tend to be more generous with their time. Plus, they’re more excited and interested and truly want to help. “They think differently, deeply, passionately, and there’s no shortage of them.”
Ultimately, Jhaveri opted to focus on music. “Music infiltrates popular culture,” she explains. But how do you reach “the crowd” — that is, the general public potentially willing to donate that doesn’t really know what biotech is? In her opinion, the crowd seemed stuck in 1970s thinking [i.e., if they donate money to researchers, then researchers will be able to find the cure for cancer]. “How do we educate the public, so they know what the role of research is along with the roles of biotech and pharma, because the public is unaware how the system actually works?”
This audience education became a big part of what Jhaveri has had to do, because otherwise her approach wouldn’t make much sense. “A bit of my mission is to share exactly how the whole drug discovery and development system works (i.e., strengths and weaknesses), and from there I can get the public connected with people who are actively working on solutions.” This required knocking on a lot of doors to circulate her idea (i.e., working with emerging artists to raise money and awareness for emerging biopharmaceutical companies trying to develop cancer cures). She thought musicians could help get the word out in popular culture of what biopharmaceutical companies working on cancer therapeutics actually do. And once people have a better understanding of the challenges these young companies face, along with the potential of their treatments, they could donate while also supporting their favorite emerging artists.
"What's really missing when founding a biopharmaceutical startup is access to non-dilutive funds."
Unlike big charities where a donation can be spread across a number of different opportunities, Sound Affects, the crowdfunding charity platform created by Jhaveri, is strictly about giving to startup micro-biotechs. “A charity that leverages emerging artists to raise money for biotech oncology innovation versus giving to cancer research just isn’t normally done,” she contends. Think about it this way: If you wanted to donate money toward curing cancer, you would likely want it to go to some kind of research, which could mean a wide variety of things in an assortment of settings. Or you might want it to go toward supporting something that looks so promising that people have obtained a patented technology and are actually building a company around it to bring it to market (should their efforts prove successful). This is what Sound Affects is attempting to do.
HOW DOES SOUND AFFECTS WORK?
Instead of the classical approach, Jhaveri envisioned creating competitions. “My team and I wanted to do an online challenge that somewhat mimicked the ice-bucket challenge.” However, she didn’t want a fad that fades, but instead, a competition that could be done repeatedly. “We found that musical artists, especially emerging ones, are very intimate with their fan base and are really good at asking for support for something they care about.”
That’s all great, but what’s in it for the artists? Why might they want to help an industry with a beaten and battered reputation, beyond the chance that they were personally touched by the loss of a friend or family member from cancer? It seemed the only way to make this work was to create an incentive with a prize that artists actually care about. “This took a little trial and error to figure out,” Jhaveri admits. Because, though an artist and his/her music are competing with other artists and their music to see who can raise more money, in this regard, any money raised by the artist is the equivalent of “likes,” and is insufficient for paying the bills. To that end, Jhaveri built relationships with Republic Records and Reverb Nation. “Republic Records is a major recording label, and Reverb Nation is a portal for emerging artists, with more than 4 million subscribed artists worldwide,” she elaborates. “We created a prize where the artist who raised the most money would not only get to meet the record label but also to perform for them in their building in New York City.”
Today, Jhaveri is figuring out how to get a spot at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual conglomeration of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences jointly organized in mid-March in Austin, TX. “This has been a music festival for a long time, but over the past 10 years, they started a medtech conference around it.” Jhaveri explains how it morphed to include all tech, and thought leadership, and how she was asked to speak at an SXSW panel in 2018 by Bristol-Myers Squibb. “They wanted to do a panel around cancer and music.” Today, SXSW has become a huge event that’s more popular than just the music festival it started out as. Luminaries such as Elon Musk; the women who started the “Me-Too” movement; and Greg Simon, a former executive with Pfizer, who later became involved with Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot,” all have spoken at SXSW. In fact, it was Simon who not only led Jhaveri to SXSW, but the whole Sound Affects idea in the first place. “He was working at Poliwogg (a broker-dealer for crowd-equity transactions that would get a commission for raising money for companies in an effort to democratize healthcare investing), and suggested I seek a solution to the Valley of Death via development of a charitable crowdfunding platform.”
Another opportunity Jhaveri is working on these days is getting winning artists an opportunity to open for one of Republic Records’ already signed artists. This represents a big opportunity for emerging artists, as they can gain exposure to established bands’ fan bases. “Some signed artists have agreed, and we’re just waiting to line up schedules.”
Though Sound Affects hasn’t yet had a winner “signed” to a record label, they have certainly helped a number get their foot in the door, while also helping to raise more than $90,000 thus far. And while this number might seem small, let’s keep in mind that behemoth companies like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft were once just big ideas held by folks with big aspirations. All of those founders succeeded, not only because of their great ideas and hard work, but also because they were people with the resilience and belief to persist in attempting that which had never been done. While acknowledging the odds stacked against her, Jhaveri nonetheless remains optimistic and dogged in pursuing the Sound Affects dream.