HCN News & Notes

UMass Amherst Startup a Winner in Massachusetts Tech Transfer Contest

AMHERST — Ernest Pharmaceuticals, a startup venture based at UMass Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), is one of four companies to win $2,500 from the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) in a business-pitch poster competition in Boston. This recognizes the groundbreaking young biotech firm as it brings its research on programmed bacteria that deliver anti-cancer treatment to tumors from lab to market. 

Ernest Pharmaceuticals CEO and bioengineer Nele Van Dessel presented the poster at MTTC’s 12th annual Massachusetts Life Sciences Innovation Day; the company was one among 30 vying for four prizes. She said she and co-founder Neil Forbes, a professor of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst, believe the company’s association with IALS has been a crucial factor in its steady success. 

“We showed up three years ago at IALS with good science but no business plan,” Van Dessel said, adding that the IALS venture mentoring team “showed us how to start speaking to business to identify our market.” The biotech entrepreneurs also learned how to identify the most effective cancer target type, how to apply for grants, and how to help their treatment reach patients sooner. “Basically, we went from speaking to scientists to pitching to investors.”

Furthermore, IALS’ strategic planning, technology transfer, and other business services, such as developing conflict-of-interest, research, and compliance guidelines have been essential for the development of Ernest Pharmaceuticals. “On the science side, we were good,” Van Dessel said. “We just needed help on the business side, and IALS came through. Where there’s a need they can help you with, they will. We’re very grateful.”

Van Dessel, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering at home in Belgium, came to UMass Amherst looking specifically for Forbes after she read all his published papers on what she calls his unconventional but effective use of Salmonella bacteria to deliver cancer-busting compounds to kill metastatic breast cancer tumors from inside. Forbes named the company after his grandfather Ernest, who died of prostate cancer.

Since co-founding Ernest Pharmaceuticals with Forbes, Van Dessel has talked with a large number of oncologists to learn where the greatest need is in cancer treatment today, in particular which metastatic diseases are the hardest to treat. In this way, she and Forbes identified an urgent need for new tools to treat metastatic liver, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. “So we broadened our approach and went after federal funding to specifically address those,” Van Dessel said.

Also benefiting from the UMass Amherst – IALS Business Innovation Fellows program, Ernest and three other campus startups received Small Business Innovation Research phase I grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health in 2018, bringing them into this year with significant funding, Van Dessel noted. “So now we are looking to raise $1 million to focus on bacterial strain development, for a safe and effective bacteria to deliver to target tumors.”

Peter Reinhart, IALS director, noted that “I am delighted that Ernest Pharmaceuticals, an innovative startup advancing their novel oncology drug-delivery platform with technology licensed from UMass Amherst, won the poster competition in a strong collection of emerging companies.”

Hosted at the UMass President’s Office, MTTC enables public and private research universities and medical centers in Massachusetts to lead the nation in translating basic research to the market, creating jobs and spurring economic development.