Curing cancer is no small feat: Israel’s NeoTX is still up for the challenge.
The startup’s CEO sits down with Geektime for an exclusive interview about how he and his team at NeoTX are changing the biopharmaceutical industry
By Alissa Abrahami / 3 Aug 2022
Israeli startup NeoTX is a biopharmaceutical company that focuses on research and development in the field of oncology. Founded in 2015, NeoTX developed a Tumor Targeted Superantigen (TTS) platform technology which was inspired by the fact that the immune system is much better at killing bacteria than cancer cells. The TTS has two components: a TAA (Tumor Associated Antigen) which is a molecule that attaches to cancer cells and a Superantigen Peptide which can activate a controlled, natural, antibacterial immune response. What the TTS does, gis it coats the tumour with a superantigen (bacteria) and lets the body’s immune system do the work; the immune system attacks the bacteria and subsequently the tumour it surrounds. This ultimately converts a weak antitumoral immune response to a strong, antibacterial one, and has even worked in patients who are not responding to their standard immunotherapy treatment. TTS technology has the potential to challenge the effectiveness of other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and CAR-T cell therapy, as the advantage of TTS that is not seen in chemotherapy, is that the immune system is used to attack cancerous tumours that develop alongside the disease and provides an active response to the development of the tumour.
We sat down with Asher Nathan, one of NeoTX’s co-founders, and CEO, to better understand the journey that brought him and NeoTX to where they are today.
Nathan is a Chicagoan who moved to Israel many years ago. He started his career at the University of Illinois where he received a BSc in chemistry and biology. He then continued his studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since completing his education, he has had an impressive track record in the field of biotechnology; he was Managing Director at Paramount Biocapital, drug development and investment firm; founded IntelliGenne and EvoRx, two biotech companies; and served as a Managing Partner at Zoticon Bioventures, a company he co-founded. His career has led him to gain extensive experience in biotechnology, business strategy and development, and entrepreneurship. Moreover, he has authored over 25 patents in the biotechnology field.
Fighting the big fight
Though Nathan has dabbled in other specialties within biotech, he has gravitated toward oncology: “Oncology has always been closest to my heart. I love the challenge. I compare it to the lure of a casino. What we are setting out to do looks easy – kill the out-of-control cancer cells without killing the healthy cells– yet no matter what you throw at them, they appear more intelligent and evolve resistance faster than we can develop new drugs.” It is this challenge that drives Nathan every day. He has two strategies for running NeoTX and that is to think differently and think big. He explained to us that to overcome such a daunting task, such as killing cancer cells, you need to have a different approach than all the other biotech companies striving to achieve the same thing. “It is nearly impossible to have a unique drug in immune oncology. It is a very crowded space as there are at least a handful of companies for every new approach. Most Companies are OK with having competition because it gives them the impression there is safety in numbers, but we have a different approach: we have managed to be the only oncology company – that I am aware of– based on superantigen technology. So, in that, it is evident that we are not afraid to swim alone in the deep waters without a lifeguard because we know whatever sunken treasures we find belong solely to us; we have found a different approach that is worth fighting for.”
On his second strategy– thinking big– Nathan explained that as an oncology company with unique technology for cancer immunotherapy, NeoTX has world-renowned drug development capabilities but lacks drug discovery competency. So, their challenge is to bring the two together: drug discovery with breakthrough technology and drug development. “By putting the two together, we have a much bigger dream: an integrated company with assets and technologies that can drive innovation into the next decade and can make us a leading company for oncology treatment.”
“When I wake up every day, I tell myself to believe in the team and product and to lead the company by example. That is what gets us through each day, which has its own challenges, triumphs, and failures. But from these experiences, we learn, and we make improvements for next time.” He went on by saying that he knows from first-hand experience how challenging it is to hit the ground running on a startup, especially in biotech, with a lack of capital and data working in a constant loop against you. But when doubts fill your thoughts, you just have to think of your purpose: “Although it’s fun to see promising ideas get funded, it is far more satisfying to be part of the action and feel the thrill of seeing patients spared certain death because of something you are doing. When you see a patient with intractable cancer whose tumour is proliferating, which typically means he should have had less than 3 months to live, respond so well to the treatment from our technology, that after 2 years, he is still cancer free, you understand that what you are doing– the struggle to make this startup a success– is well worth it.”
No place like Israel
When we asked Nathan about his experiences here in Israel, as an entrepreneur and scientist, he gave a beautiful anecdote that sums up the spirit of Israel as the Startup Nation. He told us about a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when one of their partnered hospitals’ labs shut down. “When a patient in a trial receives our experimental drug, we need to take their blood and analyze it right away. During the peak of the pandemic, there was an instance where we unexpectedly couldn’t send it to the hospital we normally work with, so we were frantically trying to find a solution. We were able to find another unrelated hospital with a lab willing to volunteer to do the testing and a taxi driver who was patient enough to fetch it from the hospital and drive it to that lab which was in a completely different city. Such a chain of events would happen anywhere else in the world and is a true testament to our great nation.”
NeoTX was founded in 2015 by Asher Nathan (CEO), Ramona Lloyd Ph.D. (VP Regulatory), Marcel Rozencweig MD (President, Former Chief Medical Officer), Roger Kornberg Ph.D. (Chairman of the Board, Former Chief Scientist) and Robert Harow (Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer). To date, they have raised over $80 million. They are headquartered in Rehovot, Israel, with 50 employees worldwide.