The liver is the largest organ in human body and plays a significant role in the detoxification of metabolic slag. In case of liver failure, these toxic wastes accumulate rapidly in the body and endanger the lives of patients. As of today, there are no treatments to save patients from acute liver diseases, whether it is for alcohol, drug, hepatitis, obesity, or diabetes. This has made current standards of care ineffective—in acute cases, unsafe, and often not available on-time.
Vincent Forster, co-founded Versantis with an aim of developing a new generation of effective medicines and reliable diagnostics that would revolutionize the care of patients with liver diseases. Since its formation, Versantis – a Swiss pharmaceutical startup company – has been committed to the translation of life-saving therapies for acute hepatic diseases of high unmet medical needs.
Before the formation of Versantis, Vincent completed an award-winning doctoral research in Pharmaceutical Sciences at ETH Zurich. During his tenure in the Drug Delivery Laboratory headed by Prof. Leroux, he coinvented and developed the technology platform from which Versantis’ proprietary pharmaceutical products were derived. His pioneering scientific contributions generated several international patents; were published in eminent journals such as Science Translational Medicine, and led to him being awarded by the prestigious Phoenix Group and Pfizer Research awards. Prior to that, Vincent carried out a diverse and global background education in Life Sciences and Biomedical Engineering at EPFL Lausanne and UCSD San Diego, wherein he focused on the unification of multiple medical technologies to design tools and models for improving patient care.
Working on a Bigger Picture!
Since the medical world is becoming ever-more interdisciplinary, Vincent’s goal is to work a bigger picture by coalescing advances across multiple disciplines to promote the development of novel therapies and improve the global healthcare system. In fact, this is in a nutshell the story behind Versantis’ main asset where technologies from different fields where combined to devise a straightforward, yet extremely efficient, medical product which answers the depriving needs of patients suffering from severe liver disease.
Versantis’s lead candidate, VS-01 has the potential to fill the medical gap between preventive drugs and liver transplantations, and has received Orphan Drug Designations from both the FDA and EMA. This program is the first treatment for acute-on-chronic liver failure (ACLF), a life-threatening condition of high unmet medical need and alarming mortality rate. Vincent plans to rapidly broaden his company’s scope in this field with a family of products embracing less severe indications such as hepatic encephalopathy and complications of cirrhosis.
Translating the Fruit of Academic to the Market
At the peak of his career, Vincent is about to achieve what he always promoted — linking entrepreneurial to scientific mindsets to translate the fruit of academic research to the market. He believes this translation is challenging and requires a solid and versatile set of skills. “I don’t think anyone is born entrepreneur or CEO and I truly believe that with the right balance of commitment, motivation, and perseverance, everyone can build and grow a successful venture,” Vincent asserts.
Three years back, Vincent seized this opportunity motivated by the perspective to save the lives of patients with liver deficiencies. He was knowingly taking a large step outside of his comfort zone and it’s not something he regrets today, not for a second. He says, “The daily problem-solving and the constant learning are getting me out of bed every morning!”
Milestones along the Way
There were two pivotal moments in the decision-making process. During Vincent’s tenure at ETH, they invented and developed an unconventional technology, with clinical potential in several fields of high unmet medical needs. Although starting Versantis seemed to be the obvious avenue, Vincent mentions, he was neither a business expert nor a medical doctor to evaluate the need and demand for such products. The filing of their first patent was the first step towards making this venture into a reality, but then what clearly kicked the project off the ground was Versantis’s first contracted market study based on a dozen of international KOLs interviews which validated the medical needs and pharmaceutical interest towards the company’s technology. Since then, milestones succeeded one another rapidly thanks to the commitment of its cofounder Meriam Kabbaj who has catered predominantly in it. Versantis grew its business and medical advisory network, advanced the technology to industrial-scale manufacturing, proved its efficacy in gold-standard models, and very soon was awarded with several international entrepreneurial prizes recognizing the sound business proposition of the company.
Building a Strong Network of Collaborators since the Beginning
Vincent is a strong believer of ’time is money.’ This naïve saying is especially true in Biotechnology where capital need is extremely high and products must navigate through time-consuming regulatory hurdles to reach marketing approval and enjoy what remains from their patents protection period. “This puts biotech executives under pressure to be creative every step of the way in order to design a lean, condensed, and cost-efficient development strategy. Executive teams of small biotech startups must be able to plan proactively and juggle between different fields with external partners to successfully climb every step on the way to success. This is exactly what we have fostered at Versantis from the start; we have successfully built a trusted network of collaborators, together achieved milestones in a timely fashion, and now with two Orphan Drug Designations granted to our lead product, we can plan on a lean clinical development,” Vincent adds.
Fostering New Ideas and Driving the Development
Last March, Versantis successfully raised a Series A of $4.5m with outstanding partners such as Redalpine Venture Capital and Healthequity. But raising money is only the beginning, now Versantis’ team is on the clock to advance its lead product to the first-in-human clinical trial. Simultaneously, Versantis continuously fosters new ideas and drives the development of its follow-on products VS-02 and TS-01, with which Versantis will stand out as an innovational leader in hepatology. Its pipeline embraces all stages of hepatic encephalopathy and aims at increasing the life expectancy and quality of these patients which have been so far neglected by the drug development industry. Vincent aims, “…in 5 years from now, these patients will be diagnosed, saved, and supported with our products.”