Fundraising, working with investors and explaining new science are often among the most challenging and unfamiliar parts of leading a biotech startup for scientist CEOs.
But Colleen Acosta, CEO and co-founder of the clinical-stage, women’s health biotech Freya Biosciences, knows a thing or two about educating skeptical people about science.
“I think being able to explain something and why it's important is really key,” she said.
Acosta was working as an epidemiologist for the WHO when the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa in 2014 and was deployed into the field.
“I was sent out to Sierra Leone, one of the hotspot districts,” she said.
She had worked to contain outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever, and gained additional training while earning her master's degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Now, Acosta was putting that experience into action.
Acosta spent about two months working on the WHO’s outbreak response, living in a town with no paved roads or running water and sleeping on a straw mattress. The work wasn’t easy. In addition to the health threat of Ebola, Acosta faced skepticism and pushback from locals.
Many of the villages she visited were remote, and the people who lived there didn’t attend school, couldn’t read or write, and often didn’t understand what a virus was. The idea of quarantining flew in the face of their culture, where community is paramount, especially during periods of sickness.
“Having to explain what this is, and why they suddenly have to change, basically their religion to keep their family members safe, is something we had to explain very carefully,” she said. “There was a lot of pushback because we (were telling) people: ‘You need to stay in your home, you need to stay away from everyone else.’ And in these societies, the community is the most important thing.”
Some of the situations were incredibly heartbreaking, like telling a family who’d just lost their child that they couldn’t perform the usual funeral rites because of the virus.
Yet eventually, the team was able to explain the concepts and stop the outbreak almost entirely in the hotspot district where Acosta was working.
Shifting to the startup life
Six years later, Acosta took on a whole new venture as co-founder of Freya Biosciences. The company focuses on the link between the microbiome of the female reproductive system, inflammation, and health conditions of the reproductive system, such as infertility, preterm birth, IVF failure and infertility associated with endometriosis.
“There's a large body of literature linking the microbiome — the type of bacteria that women have in the reproductive tract — with inflammation, and then also inflammation with a host of other problems that women are facing,” Acosta said.
By adjusting the microbiome and therefore reducing inflammation, Freya hopes to provide a treatment for those conditions. Freya is one of just a few companies, including Luca Biologics and Ferring Pharmaceuticals, investigating microbiome drugs for indications in women’s health.
It’s a different approach than other women’s health companies, which often focus on hormonal pathways to treat conditions “where innovation opportunities appear to have been saturated,” Acosta said
“We're working to pioneer these microbial immunotherapies,” she explained. “As the name implies, these microbial immunotherapies are basically bacteria or compositions of bacteria, and if we can shift the bacteria in the ecology of the reproductive tract, we can have that corresponding shift in the immune profile.”
"There's some remarkable parallels between working in an emergency environment and working in a startup company."
CEO, Freya Biosciences
Earlier this year, the company announced positive topline results from a first phase 1 clinical study of its lead asset FB101, an investigational vaginal microbial immunotherapeutic that Freya intends to study for improving fertility outcomes and the success rates of IVF.
“Something that we've been able to see in our initial data … is that we can shift the immune profiles of women by shifting the bacterial flora,” Acosta said.
From there, the company will study whether shifting the immune profile affects IVF success and improves fertility outcomes.
FB101 is one of Freya’s first-generation drug products, which is derived from healthy bacterial flora taken from human donors and then are transplanted into patients. However, studying those donor-derived products serves a larger purpose as well.
“Freya has an in-human discovery platform that de-risks and accelerates its drug development,” Acosta said. “We have a proprietary method of being able to select out those strains that we know are superior at colonizing in women, and those are the strains that (we) will bring forward (to) our next-generation, strain-based consortia products.”
They can then use those second-generation products to target indications with larger populations, such as preterm birth, which affects one in 10 babies.
“We can efficiently scale up these strain-based products efficiently for very large populations,” she said.
Connecting the dots
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’d be crossover between working as a field epidemiologist during an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and leading a biotech startup, but Acosta said there are similarities. For instance, she’s found parallels between pitching the company’s tech to investors and explaining the reasoning behind quarantining to patients. Both require clear communication and persuasiveness.
In fact, interacting with investors has proven both enjoyable and successful, Acosta said. Freya received $8 million in seed funding in 2020, and now is wrapping up series A funding, which it will announce in a couple of months.
“There's some remarkable parallels between working in an emergency environment and working in a startup company,” she said. “You have one mission that you want to accomplish, and tons of moving parts around it, and people that need to execute on these different focus areas.”
In Freya’s case, the mission is improving women’s health at a time when treatment and research still lags. For instance, Bayer recently said it was shifting its clinical focus away from women’s health.
“There’s very few clinical-stage companies and therapeutics for women's health,” Acosta said. “I think Freya is one of the companies that has a unique and novel approach, and if we can succeed … in our mission, we can change the lives of women all over the world.”