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From Mountain to Market: Maintaining the university-startup relationship

Collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, can be found everywhere from behind your eye to your skin, heart, kidney, and bones. Collagen serves as structural support thanks to its rope-like triple helix structure that makes it both flexible and strong, but it also plays in key role in cellular functions.

Since collagen is so abundant, many diseases are associated with the dysregulation of collagen. When collagen is properly regulated, your body is healthy: bones are strong, skin is smooth, and wounds heal quickly. However, when there is either too much collagen synthesis or collagen degradation, things go poorly.

When collagen is damaged, you can compare it to a rope that is fraying and starts to unwind, leading to issues ranging from arthritis to skin wrinkles. Meanwhile some diseases, like cancer or fibrosis, can result in too much collagen production leading to organ failure and tumors. When an athlete tears a muscle or breaks a bone, the collagen in those areas gets mechanically damaged and needs to be repaired.

University of Utah spinout 3Helix is developing peptides that could target collagen’s rope-like structure after it has been damaged. The company was built on the foundational research of current U biomedical engineering professor Michael Yu and his then PhD student, Yang Li, while at John Hopkins University. They discovered that the collagen hybridizing peptides (CHP) they developed can effectively target damaged collagen instead of intact, healthy collagen.

Michael Yu

Michael Yu is a co-founder of 3Helix and current professor at University of Utah.

Yang Li

Yang Li a co-founder of 3Helix and current professor at Sun Yat-sen University.

Yu and Li found their way to the U in 2013 where they continued their research and eventually decided to start 3Helix in 2015 to enable a deeper understanding of collagen through the study of damaged collagen. 3Helix began the commercialization of the CHPs in 2017 as research use only products to other academic and industry labs after the company licensed the necessary patents from both John Hopkins University and the U.

After successfully starting 3Helix and launching CHPs into the market place, Yu and Li didn’t have the time to invest in taking the company to the next level with their academic roles, so towards the end of 2020, 3Helix turned to Michael Kirkness and Lucas Bennink to lead the company as the CEO and CTO respectively. Yu remains an integral 3Helix team member as a board and scientific board member, while Li has transitioned to a consulting role with the company. Bennink was a natural fit as he received his bioengineering and biomedical engineering Ph.D. in Yu’s lab and worked on much of the foundational research behind 3Helix.

Kirkness, on the other hand, never thought he’d use his Ph.D. in biochemistry, wanting to be an entrepreneur and consultant after graduating. After running and consulting with a handful of other companies, Kirkness started consulting with 3Helix after stumbling upon it in a Google search. After a few months, he knew he wanted to stay with the company. “It was really the realization that you could use your fun entrepreneurial spirit in science and even the field that you studied,” Kirkness said. “It's much bigger and better than what I ever could have dreamed of.”

With Kirkness and Bennink on leading the way, it was full steam ahead on transforming the company’s platform technology developed by Yu and Li from a reagent sales company to a more diverse research company with verticals in fibrotic diagnostics, cosmetics, and therapeutics all revolving around the CHP platform technology. “We've really taken it from just a fundamental research tool for academic labs and are trying to transform it into something bigger,” Bennink said.

Mike Kirkness

Mike Kirkness is the president and CEO of 3Helix.

Lucas Bennink

Lucas Bennink is the CTO and VP of 3Helix.

Maintaining a relationship with the U

Just because 3Helix left the academic lab, it doesn’t mean the company also left behind its connections and relationships with the U.

PIVOT Center was instrumental in assisting Yu and Li in the initial patenting of 3Helix’s foundational technology, and it continues offering guidance and support to the company. “When Mike and I started in 2019, we needed some guidance,” Bennink said. “So, we reached back out to PIVOT and they put us in contact with Noah Nasser.”

Nasser is a “Mentor-in-Residence” with PIVOT Center. The in-Residence program matches successful entrepreneurs and industry leaders with U spinouts and researchers to offer support. Bennink and Kirkness both agreed that Nasser, who is now the chairman of the 3Helix board, has been extremely helpful.

Nasser said he's honored to be a part of the 3Helix team. “Collagen metabolism and damage sit at the center of multiple diseases; the work the 3Helix team is doing elucidates disease processes and potential therapeutic interventions. I am grateful for the role the PIVOT center specifically and the University of Utah more generally played in incubating this technology and for allowing me a small part in it.”

“It’s hard to measure the enormous positive impact Noah has had on 3Helix, his experience, leadership and recommendations have touched every facet of the business” Kirkness said. Upon recommendation and guidance of how to build a board of direction from the PIVOT Center, 3Helix brought on another experienced leader in Michael Fugman. Fugman brings his vast experience in corporate finance and management to round out the board of directors along with Nasser, Yu and Kirkness.

Noah Nasser

Noah Nasser is the board chairman at 3Helix.

Michael Fugman

Michael Fugman sits on the 3Helix Board of Directors.

Connecting with Nasser still wasn’t the end of the University of Utah connections 3Helix was able to leverage. As the company expanded, the team needed more space. At the time, they were sub-leasing one lab bench from another company. “We didn't have space to have equipment, and the other company, for obvious reasons, wouldn't let us use their equipment,” Bennink said. “Really, we just had the bench space to do some very basic science.”

Luckily, the U was working with a former U startup, Recursion, to launch a new life science incubator called Altitude Lab, and 3Helix became one of its first resident companies.

“Since we moved into Altitude Lab, we've been able to increase our fundamental research. We could do cell culture, we could do peptide synthesis, we could do everything that we needed to do, and that really helped kickstart our research,” Bennink said. “Because we were able to show this early-stage research, we were able to get research contracts with other companies and set up collaborations. That wouldn't have been possible if we would have stayed in our old lab space.”

Establishing a positive relationship with the U allowed 3Helix to continue utilizing the U network. Kirkness acknowledged that, often, negotiating and licensing a technology and its IP out of any university can be complicated, but if you can find the right partnership, you will have access to the university’s resources and assistance.

“Pick your school wisely. It's not just about the IP. You want to be able to build that relationship and that partnership with the school, so that in the long term they will support you,” Kirkness said. “They're going have your back if things aren't going right, and if things are going really well, then they're going to be there to celebrate the wins with you.”



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