Karyn Frick PhD, Chief Scientific Officer of Estrigenix Therapeutics, Inc., and her team are leading great new developments in the field of neurobiology.
In her graduate and postdoctoral training, Dr. Karyn Frick researched age-related memory decline, specifically as it relates to women because estrogen decline at menopause turns out to increase women’s risk of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. In her research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she and her students are identifying the neural mechanisms through which estrogens promote memory formation to help find new drug development targets for reducing this risk. This work helped lead to the formation of Estrigenix Therapeutics, Inc. in 2018.
The goals of Estrigenix include developing new drugs to improve the lives of menopausal women, hoping to relieve primary symptoms such as hot flashes and memory loss. The business began as an academic collaboration among researchers at three Milwaukee universities in 2015 that included Dr. Frick, William Donaldson, PhD, recently retired from Marquette University, and Daniel Sem, PhD, MBA, JD of Concordia University Wisconsin. Together, they have developed novel compounds that target a specific estrogen receptor called ERbeta associated with the memory benefits of estrogens and not the cancer-causing side effects of traditional hormone therapies.
Within the company, Dr. Donaldson is Estrigenix’s CEO, Dr. Frick the CSO, and Dr. Sem, serves as Vice President of Business Development. In 2022, Patricia Scheller joined Estrigenix as Executive Chair. Chemists Donaldson and Sem began the collaboration by developing novel compounds that target ERbeta. They soon realized that such drugs could promote memory formation and so enlisted Dr. Frick, an expert on estrogenic regulation of memory, to test effects of their lead compound on memory in mice. After demonstrating that their lead compound enhances memory formation in a mouse model of menopause, the team later found that it also reduced hot flashes in this model, but did not affect other menopausal symptoms like anxiety and depression.
Although promising, all their work to date had been in young adult mice with their ovaries removed to simulate menopause. But aging causes many changes in the brain not seen in healthy adults, so the trio realized the need to test their compound in aging females. Thus, they decided to apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
THE SBIR PROCESS
“The SBIR process is a long journey. We began working with Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) in June 2019 through their SBIR Ready program. Three or four weeks of intense in-person workshops helped us develop various aspects of our proposal. The feedback we received on this application helped us revise for a future application and our score did indeed go up, but we still were not funded,” Karyn said.
“The program officer suggested our study section might not be the best match for our proposal, so we revised again and resubmitted in January 2022. We were thrilled to receive SBIR funding from this submission in September 2022,” Karyn said. The team will spend the next year testing effects of their lead compound on memory and hot flashes in middle-aged female mice, as well as devising new ways of making the compound in larger cost-effective quantities.
When asked what advice she said for others, Karyn shared, “Practice and persistence are key. Keep at it, keep seeking advice from mentors and keep seeking feedback from CTC on the proposal. The SBIR Ready program provides phenomenal support that I wasn’t really aware of. This commercialization support across campuses and over a span of years is greatly appreciated!”
Accomplishments with CTC
- In-person proposal workshops
- Proposal review and feedback
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SUPPORT
In addition to help from CTC, Estrigenix has received lots of other entrepreneurial support. “We have obtained considerable support from the UWM Research Foundation in the form of funding to support basic research in addition to business expenses like legal and accounting services,” Karyn said. They also worked with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and took great advantage of the Governor’s Business Plan Competition. They were finalists in the 2020 competition and placed second in their category in the 2021 contest.
The most interesting part of the journey, Karyn said, is starting as an academic without business training and learning the process of how to think as an entrepreneur. “We had lots of questions like ‘When is the right time to solicit funding?’ and “When is the right time to reach out to business resources?’ We needed to learn who those business resources were, how to process payroll, what should be in a non-disclosure agreement and what to do about insurance,” Karyn said. The local entrepreneurship community helped their business get off the ground in many ways.
Long-term, Estrigenix hopes to license their lead compound to a big Pharma partner that can conduct the clinical trials and other work necessary to get a drug to market. Karyn hopes this drug will provide a safe and effective treatment option for menopausal women, particularly those with family or personal histories of breast and uterine cancer for whom current hormone therapies are too risky. “It’s exciting to think that our basic research discoveries may translate into treatments that can actually help older women,” she said.