Lots of drugs struggle to get into the brain. John Hoekman, the co-founder and chief scientific officer of a new University of Washington spinoff company called Impel Neuropharma, thinks he has found a better way to get certain therapeutics, like pain meds, where they need to go in the brain.
Hoekman is new to the biotech business. He’s 28, a Ph.D. student in pharmaceutics, and is part of a team that won a $25,000 grand prize in a business plan competition held by the UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He’s joined by UW MBA student Michael Hite, who is Impel’s CEO.
The company is still clearly in its earliest days. Impel was incorporated in Delaware last month, is working on an application for a Small Business Innovation Research grant, and then plans to make its pitch to angel and venture investors. It is still in negotiations with the UW on getting a license to the intellectual property, Hoekman says.
The idea is certainly intriguing. For more than a year, Hoekman and his adviser, UW pharmaceutics professor Rodney Ho, had been working on technology to deliver drugs to the brain more efficiently. The problem is that most drugs can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Some are too large to pass through, others get in, but get kicked back out by cell transporters, Hoekman says.
Impel’s idea is to take advantage of anatomy deep in the upper nasal passage. Most nasal sprays don’t propel drugs anywhere close to these spots, deep in the skull—the only place in the body where primary neurons are exposed to the outside environment, Hoekman says. The company’s idea is to create a device that’s like a combination of an asthma inhaler and a nasal spray pump, to deliver a pressurized, rotational flow of aerosol to reach those neurons. That way, patients who need the powerful pain drug Fentanyl, for instance, could take a nasal spray that delivers the drug to the brain and reduces pain within five minutes, without going through the bloodstream and causing side effects, namely severe constipation.
Hoekman didn’t try to hype the technology, and fielded every question like a pro. In fact, he was more informative and poised with his answers than a fair number of CSOs I’ve interviewed over the years.
He’s also shrewd enough to find a way to perform proof-of-concept experiments that will help give legs to the company, and let him continue to make progress toward completing his Ph.D. in one or two years. Sounds like he’s leaving open his upside possibilities while making sure he’ll land on his feet regardless of what happens—which sounds like a risk worth taking.