Depression, historically, has been treated by trial and error until a therapy with a positive and stable outcome can be identified. Genetika+ is changing that with precision, personalized testing that enables the right antidepressant to be selected for patients the first time.
“We’re developing a blood test to match therapies to patients,” Talia Cohen Solal, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Genetika+, told BioSpace. The test doesn’t directly assay the blood, though. Instead, “We take the blood cells and use stem cell technology to cause them to differentiate into neurons.” What results is the Brain-in-a-Dish technology, which can be used to test more than 70 approved antidepressants and drug combinations using the patient’s own individual biomarkers and history, as well as a readout of their liver-processing genes. Depression is the first indication, but other neurological conditions are being planned.
“In cancer, physicians have long been able to access biopsies, but in the brain, you couldn’t access the cells,” she continued. “With this, we can bring precision medicine up to speed for behavioral health.”
“Brain-in-a-Dish is still in the R&D phase,” she said. The $10 million in Series A funding, received in early October, will help accelerate its development. “We plan to enter the market in 2023.”
Before that happens, Cohen Solal said she plans to establish a presence in the U.S. for this Jerusalem-based company. “The U.S. is a large market with an open dialog about behavioral health. It’s ready to adopt new technology and has a reimbursement system for pharmacogenetic testing, so it’s a good market in which to introduce our technology,” Cohen Solal explained. “Israel, in contrast, is a very small market of 8 million people.”
The Boston area is at the top of her list of potential U.S. geographies. “I lived in New York for a few years (while at Columbia University), and my co-founder (Daphna Laifenfeld, Ph.D., CSO) lived in Boston while at Harvard University,” she said. Of course, the Boston area’s position as one of the two most important biotech hubs in the U.S., with proximity to world-class research institutes and a vibrant biopharma ecosystem, also factors into the decision. “We’re excited to have a strong presence there.”
“I’m flying over in January to get the lay of the land. I thought I’d see the area when the weather was at its worst,” Cohen Solal quipped. “Not really!” she quickly added. “That’s just how scheduling worked out.”
Expanding into the U.S. is a big part of Cohen Solal’s plans for the company. “We’ll have R&D in Israel and commercial and production operations in the U.S. Our process will be run from a CLIA-approved lab in the U.S.” In fact, she expects to log a lot of air time in the coming year – while still trying to minimize her carbon footprint, she added – setting up a U.S. facility and overseeing operations in both countries.
Eventually, either Cohen Solal or Laifenfeld may relocate to the U.S. to head up development. Initially, Cohen Solal said Genetika+ plans to have 10 positions in the U.S. “From 2023, we may multiply that by perhaps a factor of five or ten.”
Cohen Solal’s strong scientific background laid the foundation for her approach to product development and overall management. She received her BA/MA in neuroscience from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from University College London, where she focused on the mechanisms of schizophrenia. During a fellowship at Columbia University, she developed innovative tools to address mental illness.
She parlayed that expertise into a position as principal scientist, leading the scientific strategy for Pairnomix, an early-stage company developing personalized medicine tools for rare genetic diseases. So far, she has published 11 articles and received 4 patents, all in the field of neuroscience.
Now, as a scientist-CEO, “I’m very aware of the challenges involved in the science, so I’m quite supportive and patient regarding product flow and pipelines. I think that can be unusual for CEOs to realistically understand the timelines in biology. Also, I’m quite methodical,” she shared.
Like many in biotech, Cohen Solal also has a personal connection to the conditions she wants to improve. “I was exposed to behavioral health challenges growing up. I had a cousin who, unfortunately, was experiencing bipolar disorder and saw how that affected him and his family. Then, when I did my Ph.D. in neuroscience, I saw chronic psychiatric diseases that affect people throughout their lives, and that are so prevalent throughout the world,” she recalled. Those experiences ultimately led to her decision to form Genetika+.
Although the company is still pre-revenue, it is garnering a fair degree of excitement.
Genetika+ has won more than 10 competitions, including the Xtreme Health Challenge - Health Israel 2021 and Avon Products’ Women Startup Competition. The success rate for the company is quite high in these events – about 25% overall, and about 90% when the company is chosen to deliver its pitch.
“I submit to competitions for a few reasons,” Cohen Solal said. Chief among them are validation and motivation. “Biotech development is slow, so it’s important for the team to get a morale boost. Winning these competitions does that.” Winning positions the company as an up-and-coming technology developer, which also helps it recruit the best employees. And, she admitted, winning also pleases investors. Now that commercialization is on the horizon, she said, “we’re entering fewer competitions.”
There is a lot of data comparing the quantities and percentages of venture capital funding going to male vs. female entrepreneurs. “With so much awareness now of the disparities, it may be to our advantage that people are trying to change,” she suggested.
Her advice for other female scientists considering becoming entrepreneurs? “Be brave and just do it. It’s a battle and you have to be brave. The female mind – studies have shown – can be more risk-averse than the male mind, so just be aware of that and take the risks.”
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