Dr. Nazli Azimi: Building the Paths to an Immune Future

The steady ascension in the number of women in  STEM disciplines exhibits a promising picture of a gender neutral global development. The women of today’s technological era are achieving this by inciting their intrinsic qualities of democratic leadership, unwavering grit and ardent commitment towards their passion, which results in unparalleled success and excellence in one’s field of expertise. With the motto of promoting women empowerment and a gender just work environment, Insights Success identifies those women who’ve marked their presence in the world of science, technology, and a myriad of other disciplines.

Considering the possession and an avid exhibition of the aforesaid traits, Dr. Nazli Azimi, the founder and CEO of Bioniz Therapeutics, Inc., has been recognized as one of the most inspirational women in tech. Her career commenced at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the world’s largest biomedical research organization. She joined NIH as a post-doctoral fellow with the dream of becoming a scientist and academics. Her research was focused on studying human immune system, a dynamic system that protects the body from invasion of bacteria and viruses as well as outgrowth of cancer cells.

Dr. Nazli expresses that it was during that exciting period that she learned about cytokines, small proteins in the body that mediate the immune response. Through her research experience, she noticed that in many disorders of the immune system, multiple cytokines are malfunctioning that results in disease development or progression. She set to develop a strategy to selectively target and block bad cytokines in a highly specific manner to reset the immune system without interfering with the healthy immunity. This became the foundation of the company’s platform-technology which allows making drugs that target bad-acting cytokines specifically.

Accelerating Innovation in Healthcare 

Bioniz Therapeutics is a biotechnology company ardently dedicated to the discovery and development of novel therapeutics, to treat diseases of the immune system that include autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis and asthma and even cancer, since in malignancies, immune system is often compromised, which results in outgrowth of tumor cells. Therefore, the potential market for the organization’s technology is very large and the decision of what diseases to pursue is deemed highly critical. Dr. Nazli elucidates that a thorough market analysis is required to determine the areas of high unmet medical needs, meaning, finding which patient populations are not being served with current therapies. For example, lupus is an autoimmune disease that has very limited therapeutic options. “That would be an area which we would like to focus on in the future, try to understand the biology of the disease, and develop a drug that could have a therapeutic impact on these patients that are poorly served with current treatment options,” she adds.

Dr. Nazli comprehends that drug development is a complicated, capital-intensive, and a highly regulated business. She says that it takes about 10-15 years for a drug to go through different stages of testing in the laboratories, animal studies, and then clinical trials to demonstrate its safety and efficacy in patients in order to get approval from the FDA for commercialization. Additionally, it requires hundreds of millions of dollars of capital investment during this developmental stage.

Therefore, it is highly critical for the company to protect its intellectual property, the secret sauce of how to make the drug, by acquiring multiple patents. “A business without a strong intellectual property will not survive in this industry,” she states. Once the patent is secured and the disease area for drug development is identified, the company needs to raise enough capital to move as fast as possible towards securing an approval from the FDA for commercialization.

Conquering Adversities 

Dr. Nazli faced many challenges similar to what all entrepreneurs usually face such as securing financing and establishing partnerships or deals. She noticed that women in general may face additional impediments during this process since they have a limited access to key decision makers. She considers one reason might be that of women not being included in activities that executive men enjoy conducting with their male buddies such as golf, cigar bars, or adventure trips. She believes that these leisurely environments promote friendships and a sense of constructive association, where deals are made in the back scene. Since there are fewer women at the top levels, there is less chance of encountering the decision makers in women networking events.

Commenting upon the challenges she faced, Dr. Nazli says, “When I started the company, our biggest challenge was securing financing.” She and her colleague spent 3 years to build the scientific foundation of the company and there was no ‘prototype’ drug during that period to show the investors to attract funds. Therefore, she had to become creative to finance her studies. She managed to do that exceptionally by starting another company that became cash flow positive quickly. The profit from that company fueled the initial development at Bioniz.

Setting Benchmarks 

When asked upon about her perspective over efficient leadership, Dr. Nazli comments, “I believe it is very important for a leader to have a vision of the future of his/her company, and be passionate about it.” Entrepreneurship, according to her, is hard work and cannot be accomplished alone. She believes, leaders need to instill enthusiasm within their teams to inspire them to commit to the hard work that is necessary for the success of the company.

They need to be able to identify the right talent for the right job and create a sense of harmony amongst them to execute the vision and objectives of the company. In her advice to the aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs, Dr. Nazli says, “Entrepreneurship has pushed me to my boundaries in many aspects. It has tested my scientific intelligence during drug discovery and development, it made me question my own confidence, and put my patience to test.”

It is evident that the role of an entrepreneur has persuaded Dr. Nazli. She enjoys the fast pace and the competitive nature of the business, she loves working with her team of highly intelligent people, and thrives on being challenged. She says that she doesn’t mind taking risks and loves to learn new things constantly. “Anyone who is considering venturing in this path should be ready for similar challenges. They need to be honest with themselves whether they absolutely want the excitement of a new experience and whether could handle the pressures that comes with it. It is not one without the other,” she advises.

Remarking upon her, as well as her organization’s future endeavors, Dr. Nazli expresses that, her focus at this stage is to carry on the clinical trials for two of Bioniz’s drugs in the clinic. She hopes to complete them by next year, raise another round of financing, and continue with the development towards a commercialization approval from the FDA.

Source: Most Inspirational Women in Tech 2019 January2019

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