Bringing sepsis therapy from the research lab to the hospital bed

26 Sep 2017

Dr Jakki Cooney, Cala Medical. Image: University of Limerick

As part of Biotech Week, we gained some leadership insights on start-up life in the biotech sphere from Dr Jakki Cooney of Cala Medical.

Biotech Week

Dr Jakki Cooney is chief scientific officer, founder and director at Cala Medical, a spin-out of University of Limerick (UL) based at the Nexus Innovation Centre.

Cooney is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin with a BA in biochemistry and a PhD in molecular microbiology.

Also a senior lecturer in cellular and structural biology at UL, Cooney has extensive experience in the fields of microbiology and protein chemistry.

‘As with any start-up, the day is defined by the tasks that need to get completed, not by the clock’

Describe your role and what you do.

Cala Medical is a start-up company with a new technology that targets sepsis. Because Cala Medical is in an early commercial phase, the role for all members of the company is, by necessity, multifaceted. I contribute scientific guidance to the project development as well as to the day-to-day running of the company. A large part of my time is actively involved in the hands-on implementation of experimental work in our research lab and analysis of results.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

The combination of my role in Cala Medical with an academic career at UL means that I have to be flexible in my approach to work. Generally speaking, the priority tasks are self-evident. Investor pitches or a lecture, which require a physical presence and preparation, demand their own time. Getting an experiment done, administration work or academic mentoring can be slotted in to other times of the day. As with any start-up, the day is defined by the tasks that need to get completed, not by the clock.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

To bring any new therapy from the research bench to the hospital bedside has many different kinds of challenges. As a start-up targeting a very significant medical problem, Cala Medical requires the input of an array of technical experts, from both the business perspective and the product development perspective. To this end, a selection of angel investors with an excellent track record in the start-up and business development area has strengthened the company significantly.

As Cala Medical moves forward, we are using high-calibre consultants to tackle complex challenges outside our immediate sphere of expertise.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

There are more than 20m cases of sepsis globally and it is the leading cause of death in ICUs. The mortality rate is very high and survivors often have life-impacting organ damage. While there have been improvements in the survival rates due to more rapid intervention with the ‘Sepsis Six’ regime of care, targeted treatments for sepsis are extremely limited. The estimated impact on the healthcare system in the US alone of treating sepsis is $25bn. Cala Medical’s new therapy is targeting a market that combines a very strong commercial case with a huge unmet medical need.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

For more than two decades, I have been working in a research partnership with Dr Todd Kagawa. Together, we have teased apart the internal workings of proteins produced by disease-causing bacteria. These proteins impact on the defence systems in the host – specifically, the immune system of humans. One of the proteins we have studied, ScpA, interferes with the host’s ability to respond to infection.

In more recent years, since I joined UL, we have been working with scientists (Prof Edmond Magner, Dr Sarah Hudson and Prof Kieran Hodnett) who have immobilised enzymes to solid supports for industrial purposes. From there was a natural evolution for Todd and I to consider applications for ScpA immobilised to a solid support. What was unexpected was the potential usefulness of such a construction in treating a major disease: sepsis.

Two academics running around with a useful idea is not enough to make a business and we were very fortunate to be joined in this project by Dr Brian Noonan (formerly executive director and head of infection bioscience, AstraZeneca). Brian very clearly understood the potential of the technology and how to guide academics out of university and into the commercial world. Together, we successfully secured significant grant funding from the Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund, and have taken the project out of UL and into a successful start-up: Cala Medical.

‘There is an unstoppable wave of change coming in STEM with regard to the participation of women’

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I generated a lot of competitors for that star billing and, rather than sift through all the gaffes, I will move straight to the learning part! Big mistakes are often the final result of a series of minor mistakes that are not fully appreciated. What I have learned is to pay attention to the little things and aim for high-quality decisions in the early stages of the decision-building process.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By definition, a team is a group of people supporting each other towards a common goal. We are a totally committed crew and are focused on making an impact with Cala Medical’s technology. New people joining the team grasp easily the importance of what we are doing. Every role in the company contributes to the effort, which will bring the technology into use and potentially save lives. This demands the best out of everyone, and everyone responds – we have to.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

There is an unstoppable wave of change coming in STEM with regard to the participation of women. I get inspired by these confident young women. My sincere hope for them is that they revolutionise the work culture to value what women have to offer, rather than mould themselves to fit into it.

Who is your business hero and why?

Coming later in life, and only recently into the business world from a very academic background, I don’t have what might be considered traditional business heroes. I have always admired companies that treat their staff well and have a clear societal element to their philosophy. For my case, I have been lucky enough to be mentored by people of really high integrity all through my academic life. From them, I learned not just the curiosity to explore ideas unafraid of the outcome, but also the responsibility of academic researchers to convert knowledge, where possible, into something useful for the society that supports that research.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I thoroughly enjoy reading almost anything. The development of ideas, images and concepts from words on a page is a joy. The most recent book that I recommended to a friend was entitled A Man Called Ove, a gentle story of loss and the triumph of the human spirit.

A book that I enjoyed that was recommended to me is Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, an interesting presentation of the blurring of the old disciplines in science, and something I would recommend to all young scientists to get their brains whirring.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My anti-smudge mascara … can you hear the eruption of laughter? Anyone who has ever met me knows that is a total fabrication and has burst into laughter at the mere thought of it. Laughter and a good cuppa are the most essential tools to survive anything.

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