An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Michael Moore (co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer) of AxoSim, which was honored in our:
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in Louisiana
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Louisiana
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Baton Rouge
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Louisiana
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Louisiana
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in New Orleans
Tell us the origin story of AxoSim – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
In my research laboratory at Tulane’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, we were interested in gaining a better understanding of how different molecules govern the growth and repair of the nervous system, in particular how those nerves can extend axonal processes over long distances and navigate toward specific targets. To address these questions, we developed a series of three-dimensional cell culture systems that enabled us to systematically manipulate the physical shape and chemistry of the microenvironment surrounding nerve cells. We were also developing computer models so that we could compare computational predictions with real experiments. We received about $1M in grant funding to do this and published several research papers.
As I started pondering what we would do next with these model systems, I was a little dissatisfied with the thought that any translational potential (the ability to affect the lives of real people) would probably be a long way off, maybe even beyond my lifetime. Around this same time, I often found myself veritably awestruck by the elegant structure of the cells growing in our hydrogel systems. Usually, neurons growing in culture extend processes in a very random and disorganized way. When we provided them with a 3D environment, and some extremely basic shapes in which they were confined to grow, we observed a highly organized tissue architecture that was very similar to real nerve tissue structure. I wondered if we could insert electrodes into this organized structure and measure organized electrical responses the way neurologists do with patients to assess nerve function. Collaborating with a neuroscientist with expertise in electrophysiology, we were able to show it was relatively easy to do just that. And so, we decided to explore whether our model system might have even greater and more immediate utility as a “microphysiological” model, that is, a very small (less than 1 mm in width) representation of living tissue whose basic physiology recapitulates the main functions of actual living nerve.
Our now CEO, Lowry Curley, who was my first PhD graduate, had laid the groundwork for much of our earliest work, and he came back from postdoctoral studies in Europe to investigate what we could do next with our model. I had been aware of other startups forming based on the idea of cultured tissue as microphysiological models for helping pharmaceutical companies test new drugs, but almost no one was working on nerve tissue at the time. We both participated in the NSF I-Corps program, which puts scientists through a sort of entrepreneurial boot camp in which participants have to interview over a hundred potential customers and industry stakeholders to determine whether there is a product-market fit for your nascent technology. This process convinced us that we were on to something, and so we decided to go ahead and start our new company.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Starting a company is actually pretty easy. You have an idea, file some paperwork, pay some fees, and you have a company. And after some early successes with business plan competitions and federal grants, we thought we were on our way. It turns out that the truly hard part about biotech is that just because something worked in your research lab, it doesn’t mean that the thing is a viable commercial product. A product has to work the same way every time, and you have to be able to do it again and again and again with the same results, or else customers won’t stick around very long. And getting our model to work reliably at a commercial scale took more time than we expected. We also found out quickly that the people who are qualified to do this sort of work tend to be highly educated with extremely specialized skills, and so they expect to be well paid. This means that running this sort of business, even when we are new and fairly small, was very expensive, and so we had to spend a significant amount of time raising capital and applying for grants, which, as you might expect, is a major challenge.
What does the future hold for AxoSim?
Our current focus is completing the rollout of the scaled-up version of our flagship NerveSim® platform, powered by our “Nerve-on-a-Chip” multiwell microelectrode device, which greatly enhances our capacity for acquiring electrophysiological data from our engineered nerve tissue. We’re also preparing for the wider rollout of our BrainSim® platform, which we licensed from Johns Hopkins University. These two platforms have taken years of scientific and commercial development, honed by input from real clients in the pharmaceutical industry who have used our results to make decisions on which new drugs or versions of drugs to continue investing in. Completing the rollout of these platforms on a truly commercial scale will enable AxoSim to make an outsized contribution to help find cures for some of the most devastating neurodegenerative diseases in the world. Of course, scaling the business will mean additional customers, increased revenue, and, we truly expect, more technically demanding, high-paying jobs. So be on the lookout for big news along these lines in the coming months and years.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in New Orleans?
It has been very exciting to be just one chapter of a grander story! Seeing recent successes of startups who grew up and exited with billion-dollar valuations has been inspiring. There is a lot of talk about the need for attracting talent and capital to Louisiana. This is not untrue. But I think there is plenty of talent here already, and with some increased investment, a lot of mentorship, and some reduced barriers to opportunity, many successes will follow. Of course, success breeds success. So the more technology local universities can spin out, the more startups that can attract capital, and the more capitalized startups that can grow up into companies, the more talent and capital and experience there will be to draw from. I have no doubt we can continue this wave of tech startups right here in NOLA, but we haven’t yet arrived – there is still much work to be done!
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My best advice is to be humble! No matter how smart you think you are, you can’t do everything by yourself. You’re going to need the skills and experience of many other talented people in order to be successful, so surround yourself with good people and don’t forget to acknowledge their contribution and treat them well!