Coming from a family of lawyers in Italy, Laura Indolfi was an unlikely candidate to found a tech startup. Yet, her love of engineering and fascination with materials took her to the storied labs at MIT led by Elazer Edelman and Bob Langer. Her startup, PanTher Therapeutics is using off-the-shelf cancer drugs and biomaterials to create a new way to treat cancers that are really hard to treat such as pancreatic cancer, Laura’s first target. Don’t miss this lively interview with a stellar founder.
EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDE
- Laura Indolfi Bio
- How Laura Indolfi Decided She Wanted to Be a Materials Engineer
- Laura Indolfi Explains Why She Came to the US
- “Like the first six months I was thinking of probably I will go back to Italy and probably join my family into the law firm. But once you pass that moment and you get adjusted to the space then it was much better.”
- The Founding Story of PanTher Therapeutics
- Business Mentors Have Been Very Helpful
- Could MIT’s Process for Licensing Technology from the Institute’s Labs Be Improved?
- What PanTher Is Doing and Why It Matters
- “You end up with 12 times the cancer-killing drug on the tumor as you would get from intravenous application of the same drug.”
- “We are planning to submit our final application to them [the FDA] beginning of next year, January 2019. That will allow us to start enrolling patients the first quarter of 2019.”
- “The things that makes me as the CEO of the company very excited is the engagement from the clinical community. We had a partnership with clinical oncologists that they are operating on these patients, coming up to Boston to operate on the pigs.”
- Sal Daher Reads a Review from a Listener and Asks for Your Review on iTunes
- Laura’s Indolfi Advice on Fundraising
- A Major Change at PanTher and What Drove It
- Laura Indolfi’s Parting Thoughts
- Arrigo Bodda, This Is for You
Transcript of “Target: Pancreatic Cancer”
GUEST: LAURA INDOLFI, FOUNDER & CEO OF PANTHER
Sal Daher: Welcome to Angel Invest Boston, Conversations with Boston’s Most Interesting Angel Investors and Founders. I’m Sal Daher and my goal for this podcast is to learn more about building successful new companies. The best way I can think of doing this is by talking to people who have done it, people such as biomaterials researcher and founder Laura Indolfi. Laura, I’m delighted you’re joining us in the studio today. Welcome.
Laura Indolfi: Thank you very much, Sal. I really appreciate your invitation and the opportunity.
Laura Indolfi Bio
Sal Daher: Oh, it’s tremendous. Laura Indolfi is doing something really hard, starting a biotechnology company. Not that what she was doing before was easy. She was a researcher in biomaterials for 10 years in the renowned lab of Edelman and Bob Langer at MIT, developing better methods of delivering medication into the human body. While few people can do the sort of research Laura has done, fewer still can make the transition from researcher to founding CEO. By all reports, Laura is doing it splendidly.
Laura Indolfi: Thank you very much.
Sal Daher: As you may note, she was born in Italy and did her PhD in Biomaterials Engineering at the University of Naples. Laura Indolfi’s startup, PanTher Therapeutics, is creating a new way to deliver cancer medication to certain types of tumors that are difficult to treat at present. She is a very compelling presenter. The TED video in which she explains her work has gotten more than 1.2 million views. So Laura, and once again I’m really, really pleased as punch to have you in our studio.
Laura Indolfi: Thank you very much. The feeling is mutual. I am really thrilled to be here.
How Laura Indolfi Decided She Wanted to Be a Materials Engineer
Sal Daher: One of the things that I do here almost every episode to help people who are starting out in life is to ask our amazingly successful guests how is it that they got started in what they’re doing. I mean how did you figure out that you wanted to be a scientist? What prompted that?
Laura Indolfi: I don’t know if something specifically prompted me but it is something that was with me forever. I come from a family where everyone is a lawyer, like both sides of my family going back to my great great grandfather. They were either lawyer, judges, notary. I was driven to mathematics and physics since the young age. So I was a little bit of the outsider and they let me play with this curiosity that I had. I also had teachers that they were very good at making this field attractive for us. When there was the choice of which university to choose I was drawn to engineering and from there it was a natural series of events.
Laura Indolfi: I was attending a seminar from a material science professor at the University of Naples that was talking about how everything in our life is based of materials. He made the real comparison between the blood and the wine and the toothpaste. That fascinated me so that’s the line I took for my research, trying to understand the mechanics and the use of materials in everyday life and especially medicine. That was the start of my career path.
Sal Daher: This is a wonderful story. So you were swimming against the current of your family in the sense that they are all lawyers and notaries. A notary in Europe is very different from a notary in the United States. It’s a much more exalted profession in Europe than here. That’s interesting that you found the support from inspirational teachers.
Laura Indolfi: Yes, and I think that my family, they were thinking it was just a bracket, like something that was going away. They, instead of then going against my curiosity they went more towards and said, “Okay, maybe it will go away if we’re [crosstalk 00:03:40]-
Sal Daher: If we indulge her fancy, she will soon lose interest.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Sal Daher: And go back to her Latin declensions.
Laura Indolfi: Yeah, they were really hoping I was going to be a lawyer in the family law firm but I don’t think they are complaining right now.
Laura Indolfi Explains Why She Came to the US
Sal Daher: No, I can imagine. I can imagine. I can imagine. Then another thing that I’m curious about, so your move from Italy to the United States. What motivated that? How did it come about?
Laura Indolfi: Well, two things. One, I did my PhD in Naples and I was working on always some product that was translational. We were doing academic research but the idea was to create a product then one day it will go into the clinic.
Sal Daher: So translational means taking basic research-
Laura Indolfi: And to apply it into the clinic.
Sal Daher: Apply it in a clinic, okay.
Laura Indolfi: Italy’s not so versatile on this field as America. When I completed my PhD we had the prototype of a product that could be translated for clinical application but we didn’t think about all of the process ahead. We didn’t really have a patent in place. It was very naïve a process. I realized that there was much more that I didn’t know, that it was a good moment to explore and get some opportunity to round out my education in order to then be able in the next product to be able to translate. Boston is one of the hub for that. I got an offer from MIT. You don’t really say no when an offer from MIT comes around. That was actually 10 years ago next month.
Sal Daher: Yes, amazing. The lab that you are at at MIT, the Elazer Edelman and Bob Langer Lab is known precisely for this, for this translational work from basic research to things that are applied. They call it the Pasteur’s Quadrant in the sense that they were, Pasteur was doing basic research but at the same time figuring out ways to do really practical things in the world. You’re a 21st century Pasteur.
Sal Daher: Please tell us a little bit about the lab, what the environment was like and what you got out of it.
Laura Indolfi: It was a transformational process for me, especially coming from a lab in Italy where you get assigned a project but you do your project under the strict supervision of your PI [Primary Investigator]. They guide exactly what you need to go in order for the process to move. When I came to MIT Elazer Lab it was a little bit of a shock for me because they give you an overachieving project. It’s not everything detailed. It’s just a big idea. Then you need to kind of elaborate-
Sal Daher: Here kid, run with this.
Laura Indolfi: Exactly. That’s good, like I liked that. I was not used at the beginning so it took a little bit of managing the fear of, “Oh, this is bigger than me. I don’t know what I’m doing.” But it gives you also the freedom to explore and it seems like nobody was very much afraid you were gonna fail. There must be failure but they were kind of prompted into finding something else to move forward. That kind of gives me some confidence that it was going to be okay if it didn’t work perfectly at the first time. But it was more of a hands-on self space.
Sal Daher: You feel that there’s a certain tolerance for failure in that lab because people are given such hard things to work on.
“Like the first six months I was thinking of probably I will go back to Italy and probably join my family into the law firm. But once you pass that moment and you get adjusted to the space then it was much better.”
Laura Indolfi: Yes. The path ahead is not well designed, so the failure doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It’s that you are trying to do something that nobody has done before. If you do it right at the first time, like you really have something out of this Earth in terms of genius, like if you do everything right at the first time. That shifting way of looking at the problem took a while to get adjusted but it worked out. Like the first six months I was thinking of probably I will go back to Italy and probably join my family into the law firm. But once you pass that moment and you get adjusted to the space then it was much better.
Sal Daher: No, there’s one woman who is an eye surgeon who’s very close to me who, at a very frustrating moment in her career before medical school, she was very frustrated. She says, “I’m just gonna give all this up. I’m gonna buy a falafel truck and park it in front of 77 Mass Ave.”
Laura Indolfi: No, totally.
The Founding Story of PanTher Therapeutics
Sal Daher: Everyone has that moment, the nadir. Then they pick themselves off and they go do tremendously well. Please tell the founding story of PanTher Therapeutics.
Laura Indolfi: The story has a very funny start. Meaning I was at MIT and I was doing a different project. My post-doctorate research was on a different topic, was cell therapy always for cardiovascular application. That was my focus up until that point. Then a side project came along in collaboration with Bob Langer and with oncologists at MGH. It was one of those brainstorming meeting in one of the lab at MIT where the oncologists come and say, “Okay, we have this very big problem. We are not able to make any headway in treating pancreatic cancer.” There was a call for funding for academic collaboration between engineering and oncologists and they wanted the expertise of Elazer Edelman and Bob Langer in designing new way of delivering the medicine directly at the tumor site.
Laura Indolfi: I was sitting in the room. I was the lead engineer into that brainstorming. We were just trying to apply things we have learned from cardiovascular disease and from other type of innovative therapy breakthrough that have been done in the past into this new space. We got the grant for the academic research. That was my side project for a year and a half where we were just testing the water.
Laura Indolfi: At the time, as I was saying, I was trying to learn how to commercialize science, how to make the basic science become a commercial product. I was enrolling at Sloan and auditing at the Harvard Business School to understand what were the tools that you need to do that. We got very good data from our early results from the animal model from this project. I took it up as a homework exercise. Say okay, let’s see if I can use all of the things I’ve learned at the Sloan to make a business plan and a compelling business idea out of this approach.
Laura Indolfi: Everything kind of rolled up from there in a very fast and scary way. We created the business plan and we started applying to all of the business competition in town. There was the MIT $100K, Mass Challenge. Surprisingly at that time we got very good feedback and we were able to advance quite fast. We were one of the finalists of the MIT $100K. Out of 350 applications there were eight finalists.
Sal Daher: Right.
Laura Indolfi: From there we kind of got okay, that’s something. That it’s really work not only scientifically, because we knew the data were good, but there is something in the market, in the business community that it’s appealing as well. From there PanTher was born. The business plan got refined and refined over and over. We applied for grants always at MIT for commercializing science where they help you to de-risk the technology but also give you a business mentor. That helped me to frame the strategy and-
Business Mentors Have Been Very Helpful
Sal Daher: Who was your business mentor at that time?
Laura Indolfi: It’s Darshana Zaveri of the Catalyst Healthcare Venture. Because our approach is a combination of a drug and a medical device. They were very good at assigning us a mentor that had both the expertise into the business community and she has been, she has hung out with us since then.
Sal Daher: Excellent.
Laura Indolfi: She has been continuing providing her advisor service throughout all of the life.
Sal Daher: By the way, this is a good moment to mention it. I am an investor in PanTher Therapeutics, a very happy investor.
Laura Indolfi: Thank you.
Sal Daher: I was brought into PanTher by my friend Patrick Rivelli, who was also an early investor, and I believe at some point was on the board.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Sal Daher: Excellent.
Laura Indolfi: Patrick and Darshana are the two business advisors that we have had since the inception. They were really there before PanTher was really born. They basically saw the potential into the academic product and into the business idea that we had and helped us shaping the format in a way that allowed us to be also credible with the other investors that they were becoming acquainted with us for the first time.
Sal Daher: Yes. I understand that you are using technology that is licensed from MIT.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Could MIT’s Process for Licensing Technology from the Institute’s Labs Be Improved?
Sal Daher: How would you improve the process of licensing that technology from MIT? What kind of constructive criticism can you offer?
Laura Indolfi: We went through that process has been a long process, has been a negotiation like every single things in life. What surprised me that I think it may be worth it from the MIT side to get a little bit improved is they have a very black and white view. We were an academic project one day with the IP from one of their lab and the next day we were a startup and we needed to have all of the things in place, start paying royalties. That’s not a black and white process.
Sal Daher: No.
Laura Indolfi: It took from us a long time to get all of the duck in a row to really be a formal startup. Most of the conversation were felt on our side a little bit frustrated because they were treating us like we were a big company or a formal company while we were still a hybrid between the postdoc at MIT and the … like Laura, the postdoc at MIT and Laura the CEO of a biotech. It was in hybrid space.
Sal Daher: I want to contrast this. I’m am MIT grad. I’m a big promoter of MIT. I’m on MIT’s side. I want MIT to be really successful. But I can say that the process that I hear you describing is very, very different from the process I’ve heard described that goes on at Purdue University. Purdue is miles ahead of MIT in this regard.
Sal Daher: Cagri Savran whom I interviewed here is the founder of Savran Technologies. It’s a really interesting company where Patrick is now the CEO, Patrick Rivelli. Cagri describes a process where the university actually fosters inventors to start a company. They really help them along the way in every way you can imagine. They helped find collaborators for him, for Cagri. The licensing process was very easy, the whole process.
Sal Daher: I mean I think MIT and Harvard feel that they have it made. They don’t have to really stoop because they have these big companies they’re dealing with and so forth. They’re the big time. But guess what, the big companies come from small companies. The people in the technology transfer office at MIT need to reevaluate the process and try to create something which is more responsive to the new startups because it’s the thing that sets MIT apart. MIT is just loaded with little startups. If you’re not startup-friendly, what’s the point of you being at MIT?
Laura Indolfi: To their credit, there is a lot of startups that comes out of MIT so I get the point that they may be overwhelmed by all of the companies and if they are nice and friendly in a proactive way, not that they were unfriendly, but there were certain things where it was black or white. There was no lean of stretching something around. If they do that for every startup company coming out of MIT they may be a crazy process for them. But from our side, it was a little bit of a-
Sal Daher: Get more staff.
Laura Indolfi: Surprise.
Sal Daher: Get more staff. Okay? I mean technology transfer people, hire them. Okay? It’s not rocket science, all right? Hire them. You can subcontract it out somewhere. Hire them and have the sufficient capacity because startups are the scarce resource. They’re the really, really hard things to get going. They should not be artificially encumbered by a process that’s not working. I mean let’s benchmark the best practices, MIT. MIT should compare itself with Purdue in this regard, that is doing a really good job. So compliment to Purdue and MIT, let’s do better next time. Thank you.
Laura Indolfi: Since we spun out, MIT has been doing more work on helping the startup environment, especially since now it’s such a very hot space. There has been the start of The Engine that allowed to lighten up a little bit this gray area, especially in the conflict of interests space. Something that for us at the beginning was one of those black and white. You cannot be a postdoc and starting having a company.
Sal Daher: Right.
Laura Indolfi: The problem is that the company was just an idea, it was not really a foundation. We needed the lab space where to work. Now with The Engine they are trying to provide that space where you can get this interim gray area that is lab space. They may provide some fundings to have that project, whatever project may have some commercial value to be translated and getting into a startup setup.
Sal Daher: Fantastic.
What PanTher Is Doing and Why It Matters
Sal Daher: Now, kindly take a moment and convey to our audience the basics of what PanTher is, is attempting to do, and why it’s so important.
Laura Indolfi: Yes. We are working on improving the way cancer is treated. Cancer right now is on the rise. Looks every family has some incidence of it. The way it has been treated over the past 40 years it’s always the same. Regardless of where your cancer tumor may show up you still get either an injection or a pill. The way medicine has been going out at it is let’s poison everything in the body hoping that the tumor will be the one that gets the worst out of it.
Sal Daher: Right.
Laura Indolfi: We know that that’s not really the case. Most often than not chemotherapy may be one of the cause that kills the patients more than the tumor itself because it starts having complication in the rest of the body. We were trying to look at the problem from a different angle. Not from a biology angle where you say which drug may have the biological effect at the best but how can we actually give that biological effect only where it’s needed. We were finding a way to deliver the payload, the guns, to deliver-
Sal Daher: Yeah. Deliver the payload, deliver the ammunition-
Laura Indolfi: The ammunition where-
Sal Daher: On the target-
Laura Indolfi: Only where you want it to go.
Sal Daher: Yeah. You want to hit the target and not-
Laura Indolfi: And spare the rest.
Sal Daher: And not the patient. Poison the cancer but don’t poison the patient. The way to do it instead of using a systemic treatment that goes in the blood via an injection or via pill was to figure out a way to get the cancer medication onto the tumor directly.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Sal Daher: Please.
Laura Indolfi: The way we have done is we have embedded the drug into what looks like a band-aid at this moment for the first product. We are parachuting you directly on top of your target. Rather than going everywhere around we have embedded the drug into this band-aid and then we wrap the tumor with the band-aid. We serve two function. We have the drug going in the tumor and by wrapping it we are preventing that it keeps growing and going to the other organs, spreading and metastasizing.
Sal Daher: And also preventing the drug from going to the organs nearby and causing toxicity.
Laura Indolfi: Yes. We really go only where it’s needed.
Sal Daher: Right.
Laura Indolfi: Especially for gastrointestinal tumors. That’s our first area of interest. It’s a very crowded space. You may have a tumor in the liver or in the pancreas that’s our leading indication and right next to it you have the stomach, the celiac nerve, the hepatic artery. Growth of the tumor into any of those organs or delivering of high payload of a toxic agent into them as well can be fatal for the patient.
Sal Daher: Right.
Laura Indolfi: The way we are overcoming it is we create a blanket that shades the rest of the organs and allow for the delivery of the chemo agent only within the tumor mass. This has allowed us to demonstrate we can improve the efficacy of treatment using the same drugs that are nowadays used through the systemic injections. We are not developing new agents. We are just making the one that have already been developed more powerful or as powerful as they are when given where they are supposed to be. We have demonstrated that we can increase of up to 12 times the response to treatment. We can control the progression of the metastases. We can control the spreading of the tumor by sparing the rest of the body to the side effect of those powerful toxic agents.
“You end up with 12 times the cancer-killing drug on the tumor as you would get from intravenous application of the same drug.”
Sal Daher: This is something that’s tremendously important because, for example, pancreatic cancer that obstructs bile ducts is an unbelievably painful thing. This has the promise of allowing the patient to live with the tumor, reducing the tumor, just managing the tumor and making the patient’s life better instead of half poisoning the patient by injecting the cancer drug into the patient’s veins, they put the poison directly on the cancer in a very selective way, and they get huge results. You end up with 12 times the cancer-killing drug on the tumor as you would get from intravenous application of the same drug.
Laura Indolfi: Yes. That’s not very surprising. Like if you give-
Sal Daher: For those counting that’s more than an order of magnitude.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Sal Daher: This is like-
Laura Indolfi: I mean-
Sal Daher: Really significant.
Laura Indolfi: The data were really astonishing. There was an amazing improvement in the response. But looking from the engineering perspective, it was the right way of doing it.
Sal Daher: It’s obvious, yes.
Laura Indolfi: Why we should put it everywhere else and then let’s sit there and say, “Okay, now it needs to go through the liver, through the first metabolic pass, and then it goes everywhere in the veins. That means from your toe to your ear.” Then you only have a spot in your liver like, you are really killing everything else.
Sal Daher: This is so promising.
Laura Indolfi: The dilution of the drug it’s obviously, it’s ginormous. Being able to give higher dose only locally we take two benefits. We spare the patients and we kill the tumor.
Sal Daher: Beautiful. Beautiful. At what stage are you now?
Laura Indolfi: We have been able to go very far very fast. That’s part of the scary and the good things of being in a startup. We have used already-know drugs. That has helped us our development and our testing because what we are vetting, at this point it’s just the delivery methods, like the concept.
Sal Daher: Also, the biomaterials that you’re using are also well known.
Laura Indolfi: Yes. Everything is well known and the procedure to implant it into the body is a minimally invasive procedure that is the standard of care for those patients. There is no need for a training for physician or oncologists to implant the patch. We were able to test the validity of the approach, being able to rely on a lot of safety data that were already available to us.
“We are planning to submit our final application to them [the FDA] beginning of next year, January 2019. That will allow us to start enrolling patients the first quarter of 2019.”
Laura Indolfi: We have a working prototype. We have already started conversation with FDA. That is the agency that allows for the clinical trials enrollment. We are planning to submit our final application to them beginning of next year, January 2019. That will allow us to start enrolling patients the first quarter of 2019.
Sal Daher: So human trials begin in the first quarter of 2019.
Laura Indolfi: Yes.
Sal Daher: Until now you’ve just been doing animal trials.
Laura Indolfi: We have done several of bench testing of the product to be sure how they behaved. We have several animal models, both into small models or larger animals, to be able to recapitulate the procedure.
Sal Daher: In the large animal did the results hold true for the large animals at 12x?
Laura Indolfi: The large animals unfortunately, or fortunately for them, they don’t have tumors.
Sal Daher: [crosstalk 00:26:26]
Laura Indolfi: There is these pigs [inaudible 00:26:29] they don’t … They don’t have tumors. They-
Sal Daher: Well-
Laura Indolfi: Yeah. There is all of this other line of research and understanding why that happens but, so in our case what we needed to prove, because we know that the drug works. We have tested it both into cell line works and into the small animal with the tumor from patients. We know that the drug, when given at the tumor site, it’s effective. What the large animals allowed us to do is to verify the delivery condition. In a larger setting with a larger clinically relevant prototype what we were able to demonstrate is that the drug goes only underneath the patch, that there is no bio distribution of the drug into the bloodstream, into the other organs.
Sal Daher: Okay.
Laura Indolfi: The pig model allowed us to verify that the delivery route is working also into this condition. That will result into clinical usage as the high payload being on the tumor right underneath the patch.
Sal Daher: Okay. So because pigs don’t get tumors, basically you were just implanting the patch and measuring if the patch, the delivery of the drug was just localized and didn’t spread anywhere else. Very interesting. Very good.
Laura Indolfi: Yeah because the way we looked at it is for small animal we could have an efficacy proof with the tumor itself but the animal is small and the device is also small. Like to fit into the mice there needs to be a smaller size and it cannot be done with the instrument that there are done into the patients. So we split the problem into two and we tested efficacy into the small animal where we showed that it works, gives directly at the tumor site we have all of this improved in therapeutic outcome.
Laura Indolfi: Then we took a different model where we tested that the surgeons can implant, that they can be able to handle the product, that the product fits perfectly with their tools, with their laparoscopic skills, that they will be able to implant it into patients without any additional training, without any complication, and that once that is implanted we were able to have the drug only where we said it was gonna be. We decoupled the problem and took two different animal model to test both of them.
“The things that makes me as the CEO of the company very excited is the engagement from the clinical community. We had a partnership with clinical oncologists that they are operating on these patients, coming up to Boston to operate on the pigs.”
Laura Indolfi: The things that makes me as the CEO of the company very excited is the engagement from the clinical community. We had a partnership with clinical oncologists that they are operating on these patients, coming up to Boston to operate on the pigs.
Sal Daher: Wow.
Laura Indolfi: That’s something that you don’t usually see surgeons to take their time off to come and operate on pigs.
Sal Daher: Probably because they’re seeing so much suffering in their patients and they’re so desperate for a treatment that will be effective.
Laura Indolfi: They are. That’s the good news and that’s the bad news for us because it puts us on a spot where there is a lot of interest but we need to be sure that we do things right in the right time and we select the way we develop and we bring it into the patients in the right way. The good news is that every time we talk with them they keep bringing on the table more and more application that they can envision for this product in different type of disease, with different drugs, with different … There is a variety of things that we can do with this technology. If we were Pfizer, Novartis, any of the big ones with a lot of money and a lot of resources, we could do all at once or multiple at once. Being an early-stage startup we need to be very focused and we need to pick the one application that will allow us to show the benefits and still being small enough in terms of money and capital required that we can afford it.
Sal Daher: Yes. The perpetual problem of a technology that has many different applications is just choosing the first one. It’s a recurring theme on our podcast.
Laura Indolfi: I’m sure.
Sal Daher: That in the platforms, we can call them platforms, but technology that has use in many different areas and it’s really tempting to be working at several at the same time. Coming up next, I will ask Laura Indolfi what advice she, as the founder of a hugely promising startup, would give to biotech founders on fundraising.
Sal Daher Reads a Review from a Listener and Asks for Your Review on iTunes
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Sal Daher: Now Laura, what did you learn from your experience fundraising that you’d like to share with other founders of biotech startups?
Laura Indolfi: Fundraising has been a stiff learning curve for me, like coming out of the lab and starting the process has been crazy. First of all, I will recycle an advice that I’ve been given at the beginning. To be honest I was not really sure it was a good advice but then it turns out to be so now I am really advocate. They always say if you’re looking for money ask for advice and if you’re look for advice ask for money. I didn’t really get the point at the beginning but as I was going through the fundraising process it came to be true every single time.
Laura Indolfi: I was talking with people and I was describing the technology and the progress and the pitfall or the hurdle that we were having and say, “What do you think? What can I do?” After a couple of meetings, some of my current investors said, “Okay, actually can I invest in you? You’re fundraising, can I participate?” I was saying, “Oh, okay. I’ve told you all of the things that I was not really sure, all of the things we had problem with and you want to invest.”
Laura Indolfi: When we went just straight no relationship going there and just give a straight pitch, “That’s what we have. Do you give us money?” Then they came all of these, “You should do this. You should do that. Have you tried these other things?” In a certain amount they are part of the fundraising process but sometimes because there was not really a relationship it come just to be with, “I want to tell you what to do and then we will see if we give you money or not.” That has been a process that it took me a while to get a sense but having that advice into my head kind of helped me recognize the pattern. That was one one things.
Laura Indolfi: The other one is it is like creating a relationship, fundraising. First of all you need to expect to hear a lot of “no,” either straight to your face, that I actually prefer, then-
Sal Daher: You don’t hear from them.
Laura Indolfi: Not so straight. But there will be a lot of closed door and “no.” That’s good because you want to select the people that gives you the money. You will be into the entire process together. There will be all of the ups and downs. You want to choose people that they like what you are doing, that they have the same vision, that they will stick around also when things will not go so well, and they will be willing to give you advice and be there for you to help. “No” sometimes is not a bad things if there is not an alignment of where the investors or the founders wants to be. That can be mutual. It’s obviously from the founder perspective it’s a little bit more difficult to be selective on the money that they can get because we all need the money to do all of the great things we want to do.
Sal Daher: Sure.
Laura Indolfi: But if they are not a good fit I think they are not good money. We have been instances where there was not an alignment and we decided not to go that route. It was I think at the end a good end for both the investors and-
A Major Change at PanTher and What Drove It
Sal Daher: A good decision for everybody. Excellent. Laura, please tell us about a major change in course you had to execute at PanTher and what drove it.
Laura Indolfi: I think that came from me being the founder of the company but also one of the inventor of the technology and the leading of, like I really know well the technology, and it’s a platform technology. So at the beginning we wanted to do so many things. There was all of this potential and we were trying to be as broad as possible to allow the validation of the platform to come through to its true potential. That doesn’t really go well with the startup world. Especially with the investors when you go and tell the pitch. If you throw too much on the table then there is confusion of what you can actually do. How do you see the benefits if you have too many things?
Laura Indolfi: So, we needed to take a step back and look at the platform. We had three product on the table that we wanted to do all of the three at the same time. That was our punchline. We need to kind of sit back and think and say, “Okay, that’s not gonna work. We need to pick one.” Now how you pick one and how you pivot to the strategy and to the story and to the development plan and everythings kind of comes with it but it’s a tough process to go through to limit yourself.
Sal Daher: I give you a lot of credit, Laura, for doing the things that you’ve been doing with, it’s really remarkable, no working experience. You’ve never started a startup. Basically never worked in the private sector. Not that it would be much help in a startup.
Laura Indolfi: No, I don’t think so.
Sal Daher: But you’ve learned very fast. I’m very impressed with how fast you’ve picked up on the important changes that you need to make.
Laura Indolfi: Thank you very much. It’s been a, not an easy, like I’m not sure I’m doing the right things every single day but I’ve also come to the realization that this is the [inaudible 00:37:32] early stage startup life. We go with the flow. We try to make the best decision at the time that they come. We try to see down the line on how those decision can impact the future development.
Sal Daher: Excellent. We’re wrapping up our interview, Laura. What thoughts would you like to leave for our audience?
Laura Indolfi’s Parting Thoughts
Laura Indolfi: Well I have so many but just a couple of them, especially from the founder perspective, like from people that they want to start their company and they are at the first experience, really anybody that is in the academic settings and wants to start a company. I will start saying with create a network, like having a network of advisors, mentors. Talk with everybody that may be interested in talking to you from the different aspects, from the business, from the investors’ perspective, from the clinical user, the end user of your product. Start to get a sense of like mapping your surroundings and see what every different people are looking for into your company. What are the things that they wanted to see and at which stage?
Laura Indolfi: Because at least that was true for me, I didn’t know what I don’t know. I was entering into a space and I could answer greatly, I think, all of the technical questions like on the polymer, on the drug, on how the platform works. But then at the beginning I got questions that I didn’t think about, like, “Who’s gonna pay for these things? What’s the reimbursement?” I was thrown off at the beginning because I was thinking that they were things so down the line, that now the most important things was just the technology. That turns out to be false.
Laura Indolfi: You can’t learn all of that. You can’t learn 10 different jobs on one. There is no way of doing it. The only way I found useful is to talk with people that they have these jobs and get their feedback on what do they think on your technology, on your company, and get their insight.
Laura Indolfi: The second piece of advice is it’s still your company. You take the advice of everyone but then you implement to the one that you sense more close and more true to yourself. Because if you do things that the others tells you you need to do because they have already done it, but you don’t think that that’s the right thing-
Sal Daher: But you don’t really believe it, it’s gonna come to grief.
Laura Indolfi: That you’re going down a rough path. From the investor perspective, I need to say I’ve been very lucky but kind of give it, some sort of a, cut some slack to the first time founders. They’re really trying to learn everythings. They’re building the plane as they are flying it and it’s the first time that they are doing both. But I think that there is a stage for all of that, like investors that they really put their money and their mind into the early stage startups they are very well aware that those are the founders. From the founder perspective, pick your investor wisely. See who can be of help not only with the money but also with the expertise and with the advice.
Sal Daher: Well, I can say that I know several of your investors and whenever I mention your name they smile.
Laura Indolfi: I’m so glad.
Sal Daher: You give happy thoughts to the mind of your investors so I think this is very, very wise advice. On this note, I’d like to tell you that I’m exceedingly grateful to you, Laura Indolfi, for participating and helping make this a great podcast.
Arrigo Bodda, This Is for You
Laura Indolfi: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this conversation and I need to give you credit, you pronounce my name like as a true Italian.
Sal Daher: Arrigo-
Laura Indolfi: Kudos to that.
Sal Daher: This is for you, Arrigo. Arrigo, listen to me. Arrigo, Arrigo Bodda is a colleague at Walnut. Arrigo, Laura Indolfi, Fabrizio, Arrigo Bodda. This is just for Arrigo.
Laura Indolfi: Your Italian, it’s off the top.
Sal Daher: Anyway, I’d like to invite our listeners who enjoyed this podcast to review it on iTunes. This is Angel Invest Boston, Conversations with Boston’s Most Interesting Angels and Founders. They don’t come more interesting than Laura Indolfi. I’m Sal Daher.
Sal Daher: I’m glad you were able to join us. Our engineer is Raul Rosa. Our theme was composed by John McKusick. Our graphic design is by Katharine Woodman-Maynard. Our host is coached by Grace Daher.