Mark R. Kelley, the Betty and Earl Herr Professor of Pediatric Oncology Research at the IU School of Medicine, is chief scientific officer at Apexian Pharmaceuticals. Apexian is a clinical-stage company looking for safe and effective therapies that will improve the lives of patients with a number of debilitating or life-threatening ailments. Its lead drug candidate, APX3330, targets a molecule demonstrating a role in a number of cancers — pediatric and adult — as well as diabetic macular edema, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Crimson Catalyst: If a person has an idea for a business, what are the first three actions they should take to make it a reality?
Mark R. Kelley: In the academic world, as well as elsewhere, the first step is to make sure your discovery is protected; you should file disclosures and patents as soon as you have supporting data. Second, assemble a strong team that will augment what you are not good at; e.g., an experienced CEO, business-savvy team members, and a strong scientific advisory board and key opinion leaders.
CC: What has surprised you during the course of your day-to-day entrepreneurial journey?
MRK: On the positive side, you are stimulated to think outside of your comfort zone in your communications with potential investors. You also get great ideas for new experiments because of questions posed to you. The thrill of presenting and discussing your work to potential investors and partners is also very stimulating. However, the lows are being told “no” a large number of times, or the frustration when someone doesn’t understand what you are doing or trying to do. What was also a surprise to me was the amount of time and energy needed and the difficulty of raising seed-stage capital.
CC: How do you define success?
MRK: Our company has always focused on advancing the science in order to help patients. We have complete confidence in our approach, and success will be defined as bringing better treatments to the patients in the diseases we are targeting. Along this path, success is also defined as advancing, in our case, a drug from bench to clinical trials and eventual registration of a drug or drugs that will be helpful to people, possibly in multiple indications. It is extremely gratifying to take an idea, work on it for years in the lab and then navigate the path to performing successful human clinical trials.
CC: What is dangerous or scary about being an entrepreneur?
MRK: It is very tough sledding in the early stages, getting investors interested in your science/discovery. It is particularly tough if you are advancing something that is a new target and/or drug that hasn’t been tried or tested before. The fear of not getting something you know will be helpful for patients out to them is also scary to me. The idea that a great discovery will die on the vine due to a number of reasons that are beyond your control and the wasted opportunity.
CC: What is the best advice you’ve received?
MRK: Focus, focus, focus and surround yourself with a very strong and experienced team that is all pulling in the same direction together. I can’t stress this enough. And don’t take it personally when you’re told your idea is not investment worthy.
CC: What is the best advice you can offer?
MRK: If you are doing this for the right reason, that you want to advance something that you have discovered in your laboratory research to improve the lives of patients, my advice is to just stay focused on that goal, persevere through all the ups and downs, and surround yourself with a dedicated team. Be passionate about what you are trying to accomplish and stick to it through all the highs and lows and the multiple funding rounds, of which there will be many!