Health Tech: Luca Benatti On How EryDel’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
First and foremost be passionate and persistent about your cause. When you are enthusiastic, you are connected to an innovation in a way where failure becomes less of an obstacle and more of a challenge. When you are persistent, you don’t let failure stop you from your purpose.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Luca Benatti.
Dr. Luca Benatti is the Chief Executive Officer and member of the Board of EryDel. He has over 25 years’ experience in Pharma and Biotech. He was the Co-founder and CEO of Newron Pharmaceuticals (NWRN, Swiss Stock Exchange). Under his guidance, Newron developed a pipeline of innovative therapies including Xadago, approved worldwide for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. He has authored several scientific publications and holds numerous patents.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in a pretty typical Italian family from most perspectives. However, inspired by my father’s curiosity, I have always had an enterprising spirit. His background in mechanical engineering led him to start his own company where he developed multiple patents and inventions.
I have always carried this spirit through all my personal and professional adventures. After completing my post doc in virology at Oxford University, I took a job in big pharma. It was in these years where I learned the process of how to develop drugs and bring them to market. However, my involvement in the process diminished the need to be entrepreneurial and stopped me from living in the spirit my father had cultivated.
Being boxed in was not for me. I needed to feel like I could truly create something that would make a difference to this world, not just to be able to say the words.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It was my path in big pharma that gave me my first real entrepreneurial breakthrough. I had been working on a molecule for Parkinson’s disease. The company I was working for (Pharmacia &UpJohn) went through extensive restructuring before being acquired by Pfizer. Ultimately, the program I had been leading was eliminated.
I guess something in the back of my head said, “Maybe this was the best thing that could have ever happened.” I made the decision to try and buy the asset and start a company that could bring this product to patients. After some tough negotiations, I succeeded and obtained the rights of the program to be spun off to another company in 1998 called Newron.
I had no experience running a company, no money and there were a lot of unknowns. Creating an Italy-based pharma company was no easy task and I needed money. I also had no prior VC experience. After lots of meetings, pitching our idea and our program, we were able to raise $70MM over three financing periods led by specialized international VCs. Over the next several years we continued our work, took the company through an IPO process, and in 2014 received worldwide marketing approval for our first commercial asset. This was exciting and the moment that bolstered my drive to develop drugs to help patients in need.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Although I consider my father to be my greatest mentor, he passed away before my time at Newron. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely feeling at times and I would not have gotten through the tumultuous journey without the support of many friends who had similar experiences before me. The best lesson though, came from Carlo, a professor of pharmacology in Rome. During a nice dinner at his house, I had told him that I thought I wanted to try and run a marathon but that I was nervous because I wasn’t really a runner. I didn’t know how to train for a marathon or didn’t think I had the strength. He was older than me and had run marathons and told me, “You just need to get out there and do it.” If you don’t have the strength, you build it. If you don’t have the knowledge, you gain it. These are principles I’ve carried with me throughout my journey. Whether it’s building a company or running a marathon, sometimes you need to take a risk to just get out there and do it.
I did end up running my first marathon in 2000 in New York City. After a year of training, I learned I had the knowledge and the strength. Not only to run a marathon but to tackle any challenge I would face in my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a great question and an easy answer. After expressing doubt in myself about our ability to raise money, my mentor, an Italian entrepreneur, handed me a picture of a cartoon. The cartoon said, “Look at blossoms in your garden not at the falling leaves.” It is all about the opportunity in front of you. Even when you think things are failing there is always room for optimism. I still carry this picture with me today as a reminder.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Three things come to mind. Persistence, Realism, and Focus.
You are going to fail. You are going to fail a lot. So, every time you get knocked down, you need to get back up and do it again. When raising money for example, which I do every day, you hear a lot of no thank yous. If you took it personally, you would never get anywhere.
Having a vision for what you are trying to build or create also needs to come with a bit of dreaming. But if you let the dreaming get in the way of your goal it’s always just a dream. Maintain a sense of realism. It is really important to know that what you’re setting out to do is actually achievable, no matter how big the dream.
And finally, focus. Focus might be the most important recipe in this story. You need to have a plan and stick to the plan, as best as you can. In my business there is a patient at the end of every decision. Our current development asset is for a severe neurodegenerative and immunodeficiency disease called Ataxia Telangiectasia (AT). This disease effects children at a very young age and in many cases leads to them being wheelchair-bound by the age of 12 and death before they turn 30. When things get hard or your dream seems too big, I ground myself by thinking about the purpose of our work. We can help these patients walk longer and improve their quality of life. It puts everything else into perspective and it makes leading a team of people easier because we all know what is at stake.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
We have a short-term goal and many longer-term goals. Ultimately, we want to help as many patients as possible with our technology. This is our long-term goal. To do this we have decided to focus on AT, a small patient population of approximately 5,000 patients in the US.
Our technology harnesses the power of red blood cells to act as a carrier of different drug agents. Our patented technology uses a machine called a Red Cell Loader to encapsulate a drug into a patient’s own blood. Our machine lives in the hospital so all of this takes place while the patient is there, which is about a two-hour process.
So, the problem in AT is that steroids have been proven to have short-term neurological benefits in patients, but anyone who has taken a steroid knows there are harsh side effects. This makes them non-viable to treat chronic conditions in patients who are immunocompromised with recurrent severe infections. We are trying to figure out a way to optimize the benefits of steroids but mitigate the safety issues and side effects.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Our first approach and application of our red blood cell technology has been for AT. The treatment, called EryDex, encapsulates Dexamethasone, a common steroid. We have completed a Phase 3 trial in AT and Erydex showed that progression of neurological motor decline was significantly slowed-down in the high dose patient group. The results are really promising for the community. We continue to work with the regulatory authorities across the globe to move closer to being able to bring this to a commercial setting. We have more work to do but it looks very promising.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was running a public company, Newron, we created a special story. I was proud of our accomplishments but also felt that I had more work to do in other areas. I also felt that Newron could benefit from some new ideas to keep things fresh and to continue to challenge the team. So, I took a step back and started searching for my next venture. Newron is still deeply rooted in my heart, and I still remain an active member of the board.
As I was searching for my next role, I found a project that was the brainchild of the University of Urbino, a university located in the Marches region of Italy. I was fascinated by the technology and the early evidence they had in AT. I thought, “This is my next story. This could be really special.” That was how my journey at EryDel started. I am now going on 10 years and have the same passion for this work as I did on day one.
How do you think this might change the world?
It’s really simple: This therapy could be the first approved therapy in the world to treat AT. This would be a tremendous achievement for EryDel and all the hard work the team has done over the last decade. Most importantly, together with the AT community, we will hopefully bring a product that can make a difference to the children impacted by this disease. After that, our hope is to continue this same work in another disease where high unmet need exists. Changing the world does not always have to come from evolving the masses, in our case you can change the world by impacting one patient’s life at a time
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
This is a tough question. But maybe it goes back to a prior question: If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
First and foremost be passionate and persistent about your cause. When you are enthusiastic, you are connected to an innovation in a way where failure becomes less of an obstacle and more of a challenge. When you are persistent, you don’t let failure stop you from your purpose. At EryDel, we have faced a lot of challenges. Just getting people to understand our technology has been one of them. How can you encapsulate a red blood cell in a hospital, without complex manufacturing facilities? But over the last 10 years or so, we have continued to refine our technological approach to the point that it is possible, and we have the data to show it.
I would say making your purpose clear to stakeholders inside and outside the organization is also critical. Bringing innovation that improves societal wellbeing is a huge ask and one you can’t do alone. Having a vision and being clear about how you get there will help you gain support from others. A team of people marching towards the same goal has incredible impact and power to make a difference. For example, the work in AT comes through a co-creation mindset. Something as simple as designing a clinical trial needs customer insight, clinician feedback, and alignment with the regulatory bodies.
Keep that ultimate sense of realism. It’s easy to get caught up in the dreams of what could be. Each day is a piece of the puzzle, and you need to treat it that way. Priorities may shift or time may run out, but you can control where you spend your energy and resources. We have a simple goal, bring EryDex to patients. Many times, people will ask me what I am working on. I tell them I am helping to write a grant or conduct a data review and they say these aren’t things a typical CEO does. But my reality is that we are a small company, and everyone needs to keep a sense of the realities and do what needs to be done.
Finally, listen, listen, listen……and create a working environment where everyone is free to speak and contribute.
I guess there is one more. Have fun!! I love coming to work every day because working with great people to solve the complex challenges of the world is so interesting to me. Doing what I do is a 24/7 job so if I am not having fun then it is just not worth it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think it would be President Obama as I have always admired his courage. Just to be able to sit and pick his brain about how he was able to redefine the political landscape, lead through diversity, and continue to do so even after his presidency is just truly inspiring.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Health Tech: Luca Benatti On How EryDel’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.