27 Jan / Reprogramming Cancer and the Future of Medicine: an Interview with Andrew Gray of Vali Nanomedical
Drug delivery is one of the greatest challenges in treating cancer today. There are a multitude of effective drugs that aren’t able to be delivered to tumor sites, or can not be delivered in combination.
Vali Nanomedical is now solving these drug delivery problems with a revolutionary programmable drug delivery system, and working towards a future where in vivo cellular reprogramming can cure disease without even using drugs. I talked with Andrew, Vali’s CEO, about his path to entrepreneurship, its challenges, and the future of Vali. Check out his pitch from IndieBio’s Demo Day Livestream!
AK: Tell me about your background, how did you get interested in the biotech space?
AG: I have PhD in molecular biology, focusing on cancer and developing cancer vaccines as a grad student. I got involved in nanotech knowing that starting a company was the goal. Early on I took a class on entrepreneurship and knew right away that was the path for me, not traditional academia. Going into startups has been really exciting since it’s been a goal for some time.
AK: What problem are you working to solve with your company, Vali?
AG: The biggest issue in cancer is delivering drugs to where they need to be. There are a lot of great drugs out there that can’t reach the right place or are toxic. At Vali Nanomedical, we created a programmable nanoparticle that homes onto cancer cells and releases drugs there but doesn’t harm healthy cells. It’s like making a smart missile that knows when it has missed and refuses to detonate when it’s in the wrong place.
AK: If you could only pick one thing to validate your reason for forming a startup, what would it be? In other words, what would be the single biggest indicator to you that you are doing the right thing?
AG: This is the first time in my entire career that I’ve felt like I’m at home. Every day flies by and is exciting.
AK: How do you think success can change your industry?
AG: We envision a world where drugs aren’t used at all to treat disease. Instead, we’d use our technology to reprogram cells to either return to a healthy state or, if they’re too far gone like cancer cells, reprogrammed to kill themselves. Ultimately we want to make cancer a disease of the past.
AK: How is your team uniquely able to tackle this? What’s the expertise?
AG: We have a fantastic team with very complementary skills. Prof. Mike Wong is a physician-scientist who has dedicated his career to finding better ways to treat cancer. As I mentioned, I’m an expert in the molecular biology of cancer. Prof. Pin Wang is an absurdly accomplished and productive biomedical engineer at USC. The founding team is backed up by industry veterans, including former director of BD at Amgen Holly Hartman and Prof. John Daniels, who literally launched an industry by inventing and commercialized collagen for injection. Between us, we have all the skills necessary to make our grand dream a reality.
AK: Any big lessons learned transitioning from academia to startup entrepreneurship?
AG: You have to reframe the way you talk about your work. Academics are trained to talk about the things they’re 99% sure they’ve figured out. As an entrepreneur, you talk about problems that you haven’t solved yet and demonstrate you have a plan to get there.
AK: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far?
AG: Finding the right first addition to the team. It was only by good luck and timing that I found the perfect person to add to the team. He was an amazing materials scientists named Don Johnson, who’s also a PhD.
AK: What are the big goals and milestones you’re looking to hit in the short term? Long term?
AG: Short term are building multiple partnerships with pharma to deliver drugs they can’t deliver now, either alone or in combination to treat cancer. We’re uniquely capable of doing combination therapies. Like I said, in the long term we want to make cancer a disease of the past.
Get in touch with Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org