Gone Today, Hair Tomorrow—Follica Raises Funds to Begin Human Trial of Baldness Treatment
Call it a hair-raising event. Follica, a Boston startup out to develop novel ways of treating and even curing baldness and other hair-follicle disorders, today announced it had completed a $5.5 million Series A financing round. The round was led by Interwest Partners of Dallas and Menlo Park, CA, and joined by founding investor PureTech Ventures, in whose offices Follica is currently housed.
Follica was founded in late 2006 by PureTech and a group of leading academics who include Harvard Medical School dermatologist Rox Anderson, University of Pennsylvania stem cell biologist George Cotsarelis, and Vera Price, director of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Hair Research Center. Its primary initial focus is an extremely common form of hair loss called androgenic alopecia—aka male pattern baldness or female pattern baldness.
Follica has targeted a, shall we say, growth industry. According to PureTech’s website, treatments for conditions of the follicle—chief among them hair loss, acne, and pigmentation issues—represent a $10 billion-plus annual market. It’s all part of the even broader category of “aesthetic medicine,” which also includes things like plastic surgery and many obesity treatments. And it is really in the recognition of the potential of aesthetic medicine that the, um, roots of Follica’s story lie.
Daphne Zohar, PureTech’s founder and managing partner (and an Xconomist), says the firm began thinking seriously about aesthetic medicine in early 2006. “There’s huge markets, and most of the technologies and things that are out there don’t come from real academic science,” she says. “A lot of them are this late-night infomercial type of thing.” But the market potential is undeniable, and it wasn’t lost on Zohar that people pay out of pocket for aesthetic treatments, meaning no health insurance reimbursement issues for manufacturers to contend with.
PureTech put together a team of expert advisors to begin looking at different aspects of aesthetic medicine. Their survey spanned everything from skin rejuvenation approaches to fat melting techniques, perhaps more than 100 different ideas in all, Zohar says. “As we were looking, we noticed the most interesting things had something to do with the follicle,” she says. “The follicle’s almost like the epicenter of human hair and skin.” If you can control the follicles and the sebaceous glands that are connected to each of them, you can theoretically create new hair, stop hair from growing, or even treat acne, Zohar says. “Whatever you do to the follicle is going to be beneficial to somebody,” she adds.
Armed with that realization, PureTech put together an even smaller group of follicle experts—Price, Anderson, and Cotsarelis formed the core of this contingent—to study possible research or technological approaches to follicular problems in more detail.
Then, one day, Cotsarelis told Zohar he was working on something in his lab that could be just what the doctor ordered. The Penn scientist was persuaded to bring that work to Follica, which eventually licensed Cotsarelis’s core research.
Cotsarelis, an expert in epithelial stem cells such as those found in the skin, was studying how skin heals and noticed that new hair follicles seemed to be forming in the middle of some of some wounds. He learned that when the skin’s top layers were removed, some cells within the wound revert to a more primitive state (what he calls an “embryonic window”) from which they can develop into either hair or skin. With more research, says Zohar, Cotsarelis found that he “could actually push them to one direction or another.” In a widely read Nature paper published last May, Cotsarelis showed for the first time that it’s possible to create new hair follicles in adult mammals—and to shut down hair growth. He could even grow thicker, darker hair.
Zohar says Follica has further developed this work and filed additional patents to protect the technology. What’s so beautiful about the approach, she says, is that translating it into a treatment for humans involves only devices and drugs that are already on the market. A doctor would first use a microdermabrasion tool, say, or a laser to remove the top layers of the skin—as is already commonly done in a number of dermatologic and cosmetic procedures—knocking some cells back into a primitive state. The doctor can then use this newly created therapeutic window to inject drugs that push the cells to develop along one pathway or another and grow hair or skin. Zohar won’t reveal what drugs Follica is using, except to say that they are small molecule drugs normally taken orally for purposes with no relation to hair growth.
Because the components of the system are already approved, the regulatory path is pretty straightforward, and Follica can perform human studies without jumping through a lot of governmental hoops. That’s exactly what the company plans to do with the money it has just raised. A proof of concept study involving 15 to 20 patients (Follica has no shortage of volunteers, as several hundred people sent in e-mails when word of Cotsarelis’s work reached the public) should begin in the next few months. The trial has several phases, however, and Zohar cautions that final data won’t be in for at least a year. So don’t pull your hair out waiting for results.