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Having co-founded Psilera just three years ago, Jackie von Salm, chief scientific officer, is bringing “chemical ecology” to the conversation about changing the perception of non-hallucinogenic psychedelics and how they can be used to treat CNS disorders.
During a “life-changing” experience exploring waters from the Caribbean to Antarctica, von Salm discovered the value that chemical ecology and natural products could bring to therapeutics and drug discovery.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” von Salm said. “I realized how interconnected the chemistry is between not only coral reefs, but forests and even humans. That was when I knew that natural products, drug discovery (and) chemical ecology was going to be where I focused my attention.”
Understanding the interconnectedness of organisms on a chemical — or atomic — level is the model of Psilera’s drug discovery engine, which the founders call the “third eye” — a combination of AI technology, computational screening and the human factor. The company says its unique approach can “shave off years and millions of dollars in development costs,” and it has more than 250,000 potential compounds in its library.
“The more spiritual side of psychedelics emphasizes the third eye, which is meant to help see beyond what is right in front of you,” she said. “The term helps describe what we feel is a big differentiator for us, but also as something that’s much needed in the space and drug discovery as a whole.”
Psilera is digging into the past to explore not only psychedelics but other compounds for depression, anxiety and other diseases that have stymied the pharma industry.
“We are looking at what those compounds are, how they work, what some of the benefits were, what some of the detriments were and how can we design and discover new structures,” von Sale said.
Undaunted by the stigma surrounding psychedelics, von Salm is creating a scalable approach to help patients who need new therapies.
“When [we start] to talk about a mental health and neurodegeneration addiction, [we’re] talking about millions and millions of people,” she said. “From the psychedelics industry side, we’re told that we’re taking the fun out of it, and then from the pharma side we’re told we are doing something that’s not possible — I think our approach is really the only one that’s going to be scalable on a level of the population that needs these types of therapies.”
For van Salm, breaking through these barriers requires a re-education and a focus on proper dosing and administration.
“A good example is scopolamine,” she said. “Originally that compound came from deadly nightshade, which is an extremely poisonous plant. But with the right dosing and with the right research they were able to design it in a way to help with extreme nausea. That’s [our] approach and how we try to explain it to others — in the wrong situations some of these compounds can be abused or used in ways that maybe they shouldn’t, but in the right settings we could have powerful compounds that will help with depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s (or) Parkinson’s.”
In this week’s episode, von Salm shares how chemical ecology has influenced her career, the ups and downs of starting a biotech company during the pandemic and why she believes therapeutic psychedelics are the future.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive. In this episode Taren Grom, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Dr. Jackie von Salm, chief scientific officer and co-founder, Psilera Inc.
Taren: Jackie, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Jackie: Thank you for having me.
Taren: Jackie, I’m so intrigued by your company, Psilera. Can you share what the name of the company means?
Jackie: Yes. My co-founder actually just did a pretty long post, because we just got the trademark approved recently for that name. We went through quite the back and forth of trying to figure out what we wanted to call the company. We ended up landing on Psilera because we had a big focus on the efficacy and the safety of the compound psilocybin that’s currently in clinical trials for mental health. We also really wanted to emphasize that we were here to create a new era of medicine and new era of psychedelics. So we just figured that that combination sounded very nice, it rolled off the tongue well and we stuck with Psilera.
Taren: I love it. I love when a plan comes together. It’s marketable. You’re right, it rolls right off the tongue perfect. Tell me about what you talk about this new era of medicine. You describe Psilera as a biotech research company. But what distinguishes you all from a biotech or a tech company?
Jackie: When we wanted to jump in headfirst, we knew we wanted to focus as much as possible on really how the compounds were working. We wanted to avoid any abuse potential. We wanted to really look into just every piece of the puzzle we possibly could when designing new drugs. We know from our experiences that you really have to do this from the very beginning. We didn’t feel like we’ve seen that in a lot of different areas when you’re really at early stage drug discovery and designing the compounds that you’re already taking into account what formulation might look like, what is that abuse potential, is there a tolerance formation, and what types of receptors are you hitting?
So we wanted to take that really holistic approach when we were doing drug design and drug discovery, and from the very beginning hired on a very small team but a very highly educated and highly just trained team of chemists to have the computational aspect, to have the synthetic chemistry, to really have the knowhow to be able to do all of those things in a small package. But also, really leverage academic and government partnerships so that we could do it without necessarily spending the millions and millions of dollars often seen in biotech and pharma.
Taren: Absolutely. It’s not that you’re taking a shortcut; you’re just taking a different approach?
Jackie: Yes. And we definitely emphasize quality over quantity, which I think there’s a lot of times too, in the pharmaceutical industry that it’s become a lot more about what can we do fastest, and not always how can we make sure we’ve made the best possible thing. That’s something that can take a little bit more time. But if you really have that patience and passion to make it happen, it’s absolutely possible.
Taren: Let’s talk about your approach to developing this next generation of non-hallucinogenic psychedelic therapies. Why this category?
Jackie: One of the biggest reasons was really because we had a lot of people tell us they didn’t think it was possible, which really came as a nice challenge in general. We know that polypharmacology, which the concept that you’re hitting multiple things throughout the body all at once can really matter a lot more I think than it’s often taken into account. So we wanted to make sure we were focused on what other things are compounds maybe like psychedelics or just other more CNS targeting compounds, what type of pharmacology do they have and is there a way to just tease out and remove the things that are causing hallucinations while maintaining activity at all of the other areas. That was really our goal from the very beginning because we wanted to see more accessibility.
Right now psilocybin is in phase 2 clinical trials and MDMA is in phase 3, but when you look at their models, you have to be in clinic with a therapist. It’s thousands of dollars; insurance won’t likely cover it because of the therapy aspect, and it’s just not reasonably accessible to a lot of people. So we wanted to find options that were going to have that accessibility. Removing some of the hallucinogenic effect we felt like would also open a lot of opportunity for people that don’t want to have that type of experience. I think there’s a lot of different groups.
Growing up in Florida where obviously you have a much older population – my father just passed away recently but he had dementia for a long time. There’s just no way – he was a Vietnam War veteran – that he would sit in a room with someone that was a stranger blindfolded to have a psilocybin experience to help with any of maybe his PTSD or neurodegeneration. So we wanted to really include a lot of those types of patient populations and make sure we were addressing their needs as well.
Taren: First, I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father. I think this is such an interesting approach. Is there a danger because this stigma around psychedelics that even though yours is an approach to non-hallucinogenic, that you’re getting lumped in with some of these other psychedelic companies?
Jackie: Yes, we definitely walk the line a bit. From the psychedelics industry side, we’re told that we’re just taking the fun out of it basically and then from the pharma side we’re doing something that’s not possible. So we do get it a little bit from both sides, but I think that our approach is really the only approach that’s going to be scalable on a level of the population that really needs these types of therapies. I mean when you’re starting to talk about a mental health and neurodegeneration addiction, you’re talking about millions and millions of people. It’s going to have to be something that you can scale on that level and also be mindful of what it’s going to do. Because these compounds can be very powerful, and we want to make sure we also understand really what they’re doing.
Taren: And let’s face it, the pharma industry really hasn’t hit on that magic potion yet that is going to solve this issue.
Jackie: No. They’ve done a ton of work obviously over the last few decades and really helped pave the way to our current understanding. Unfortunately, sometimes that might be things that don’t work or have negative side effects, but we learn from that because sometimes we just don’t know these things upfront. But that means that now we have this amazingly rich data set to help inform us as we move forward and also can look back on maybe some of the things that didn’t work out and know what to avoid.
Taren: There are some folks that say every failed experiment is really a success.
Jackie: Right, absolutely.
Taren: Talk to me about what led you to co-found the company and who’s your co-founder?
Jackie: My co-founder is Chris Witowski. He and I actually met during our Ph.D. work. We both were in the same natural products drug discovery lab actually at USF here in Tampa. We’ve been separate paths career-wise for a while, but we used to joke actually in graduate school that we were going to start our own company someday and it was going to be great. But I think a lot of people might say that, but it was nice and fortunate that we got to actually have it come to fruition.
I ended up going down a little bit a different path and then we came back to the Tampa area, I came back for my father and some other familial things, and I was really looking for a way to get into the more neuroscience and neurological space for drug discovery. It was right around when esketamine got approved that Chris and I sort of looked at each other, because at the time we were working at the same company and said this is really our opportunity. We both had a big motivation for mental health. He’s got familial things. I do. I don’t know who doesn’t, really, in the world. We knew that our backgrounds were just perfect to be able to really start a good company and do it in the way that we really felt like would be the best.
Taren: It’s exciting when those worlds collide in the best way possible, and the lightbulb goes off. It takes a lot of grit to say, you know what, I’m going to leave an established career, I’ve got a good job and I’m going to embark on this crazy venture.
Jackie: Yes. We definitely left pretty solid careers and it was just a moment also that we… so we were actually in the medical cannabis industry here in Florida and we had helped start these companies and establish them and really design their whole product line, help them do manufacturing and production. It gave us a lot of experience of start-ups in businesses as well. But the main thing was we really did not want to see psychedelics go the same path as cannabis, and we were really concerned that that was a big possibility. We knew that with our background that we would be able to really help steer it in the direction that we felt like would be best for everyone.
Taren: I have to ask why not go the cannabis route? What was so bad for that? Or not bad, but what was the challenge with that?
Jackie: The biggest challenge was the marketing just got ahead of the research. There was a lot of anecdotal evidence, a lot of marketing and advertising for claimed efficacies and other things that just weren’t really tried out or proven. It became a moment of a lot of patients being very confused and very really upset that they were told something would do certain things and it just didn’t, or they had really just terrible experiences because it was not well regulated. You have these dispensaries of fairly young more retail type people, but then they’re the ones directly speaking to patients and talking to them about products. So you also end up in situations where certain patients maybe had never even tried cannabis before and then suddenly they’re being told ‘here, try a 100 mg of THC,’ and that just leads to an extremely traumatizing moment for a lot of different patients.
We just really wanted to – with psychedelics, we felt like they were so much more powerful and really had just exponential opportunity for the brain and for mental health research and neuroplasticity. They were showing that type of efficacy as pure compounds, which that was also the other thing that I think is always going to be difficult with cannabis, is it’s hard to ever find one compound from that plant that’s going to be as beneficial or efficacious as the entire plant. So we really thought that psychedelics had a lot more of that opportunity to go the more pharmaceutical route, have specific structures and specific compounds that we could really use our training and expertise in chemistry and drug discovery to design something that was going to, again, be much more accessible and hopefully remove some of the trip.
Taren: Some of the trip – I love that. At the same time I can see psychedelics still having some of that same marketability challenges because of the stigma left over from the 60s. Let’s be honest, right? People think about it being trippy. So how do you dispel some of those old myths?
Jackie: We absolutely see it, especially with LSD. There’s definitely certain compounds and certain psychedelics that seem to have more of the stigma associated with them than others. I’d say that our whole argument in general is a lot of it comes down to dosing and education about that.
Good examples are scopolamine. If you’ve ever had a scopolamine patch after surgery to help with nausea, or if you’re in Florida it’s often for cruises so you don’t get seasick. Originally that compound came from deadly nightshade, which is an extremely poisonous plant that was often used for poisoning people, to be honest. But with the right dosing and with the right research they were able to design it in a way to help with extreme nausea. Now it’s even being looked at to be used for astronauts and others that are in a lot of situations that can be very nauseating. It was just an excellent example of something that can be very dangerous but in the right doses can really do amazing things.
Another example would be Botox. Botox is one of the most toxic, I think, compounds we really know of to humans – the botulinum toxin which came from bacterial species. But now you’re looking at it for all different things. It’s not just for wrinkles and others like a lot of the cosmetics side, but it is also being used for if you have overactive sweat glands. It’s being used for other medical purposes that if you were just to try to use it, it’s something that can be very dangerous. But with that right regulatory aspect and research and everything else, it’s really powerful.
That’s really the approach and that’s how we try to explain it to others is sure, in the wrong situations some of these compounds can be maybe abused or used in ways that maybe they shouldn’t be. But in the right settings we could really have powerful compounds that will help with depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. We’re just not entirely sure of the breadth of CNS that these could help us with but it’s definitely worth trying.
Taren: Fantastic. Jackie, tell me about your third eye approach to drug discovery. What does that third eye mean?
Jackie: We actually originally named it brain, but then decided third eye seemed much more appropriate.
Taren: It’s catchy.
Jackie: Yeah, and really, as part of the more spiritual side of psychedelics is emphasizing sort of the third eye, which is something that’s really meant to help you see beyond what is maybe just right in front of you. We really felt that – and there’s other aspects of it in Hinduism and Buddhism as well for enlightenment, but we really wanted to have that term help describe that we were really looking at these compounds and looking at these things on the atomic level and at a level that’s just completely, the naked eye cannot see these things. We used that term to really help describe what we feel like is a big differentiator for us, but also just something that’s much needed in the space and drug discovery as a whole. Which is that we’re taking into account all of the past information on not only psychedelics, but other compounds that have targeted depression, anxiety and other similar things throughout the pharmaceutical industry, but anything that really is similar in targeting CNS as well. We take all of those compounds and that information, and we help it inform our computational chemistry program. We really look at what those compounds are, how they work, what were some of the benefits, what were some of the detriments and how can we design and discover new structures that are really going to have the properties that we’re looking for.
Taren: Fantastic. Let’s talk about the compounds. I understand you have more than a quarter million pending compounds at the atomic level?
Jackie: What’s nice about computers and virtual libraries is you can have millions or billions of compounds very quickly. A lot them are within our virtual compound library. But we still have a pretty impressive amount of compounds in hand. I think we’re getting closer to 50 now, which for a small company in three years is impressive. We ended up really looking at the different structures that are similar to psilocybin, as well as another compound called dimethyltryptamine, and they’re fairly similar structures but we really wanted to find ways to make very small, very simple modifications that have dramatic effects. So that we weren’t necessarily just designing these huge elaborate structures that were going to be very long, very difficult synthesizes and then can be issues even on the other end once you have to do manufacturing. We really wanted to find ways to keep it efficient, keep it small and have it be something that had a big impact.
Taren: I love it. It’s a virtual library and then you have the actual compounds. That’s an impressive number I have to say. It’s an eye catcher. Can we get a little personal if you don’t mind, even though you’ve been very personal, you told me the story about your dad and your entry into this business. But I also understand you’ve traveled the world from the Antarctic to the Caribbean looking for new chemistry. Can you share some of the highlights? What drives your passion behind natural products?
Jackie: Yes. I was extremely fortunate in the lab that I chose for undergraduate research at USF. A lot of that involved marine natural products, so we got to do a lot of marine exploration. We were often scuba diving or even out in estuaries and mangroves. You very much felt like an explorer. It was hard to beat. Once I experienced that I knew that that was just going to be where I was meant to be at.
I got to go to Antarctica my final semester of my undergrad and really experience – When you look at Antarctica you think it’s pretty desolate, it’s white, it’s snow, there’s not much going on up on land. But once you go under water or once you see some of the videos of under water from the divers, it’s a whole other place. When you think of those long macroalgal forests in California, that’s what you see.
It was a phenomenal experience. I got to learn a lot about, actually other than drug discovery, we do a lot more chemical ecology down there, which is really the concept of what is the chemistry being used every day that we don’t see between the trees, between the animals, between a lot of other organisms. In our case it was under water organisms. In that moment I really realized how interconnected the chemistry is between not only coral reefs, but forests and even humans. That was when I really knew that natural products, drug discovery, chemical ecology, anything that was just natural compounds and chemistry in general was going to be where I really focused my attention because that interconnectedness of organisms on a chemical level is still intriguing to me to this day. That’s really where I like to be.
Taren: That’s fascinating. I’ve never heard that term chemical ecology before.
Jackie: It’s an interesting concept. It’s in a sense that a great example is the Monarch butterfly. That’s an example I’m using right now because my milkweed is currently getting destroyed by Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Actually the caterpillars will eat the milkweed plant, which has toxic compounds in it called the cardenolides. When it becomes a butterfly, it actually extracts those compounds from the plant and then uses it for its own defense, which is why a lot of birds don’t tend to eat Monarch butterflies or the caterpillars. So that’s an example of chemical ecology where you have the organism eating a different organism and then they both end up having this chemical defense to help protect them from predators.
That’s really how even penicillin was discovered is that the fungus, the mold that was there started to produce this chemical defense and we realized we can also use that chemical defense for bacteria and fungus in our own bodies. Then it became an antibiotic. That was really the motivation behind a lot of drug discovery for decades was how can we see what other organisms are using for their own defenses and then maybe use it for our own.
Taren: I am fascinated by- I love the fact that you’re using the principles of a Monarch butterfly in this chemical ecology to really think differently about drug discovery and solving some of the most complex issues associated with the brain. It’s fascinating to me. The discovery, and I understand your fascination with it and through your experience, and the Southwest Florida water system is quite unique as well. Thank you for sharing that story. It really brings it to life. Thank you so much, Jackie.
Let’s go back a little bit about the company founding. Three years ago, tough time to start a company, especially in the biotechy kind of world. What have been some of your biggest challenges and aha moments and opportunities, and then let’s talk about what the investors have to say.
Jackie: 2020 was obviously an interesting year to start. We were very fortunate that we did decide to join the USF incubator program in Tampa, and we still knew some of the directors of a few of the labs there that we would be able to contract and use some of the lab space. We were able to definitely leverage but just instill that help from the university to be able to really kick-start us, which was phenomenal. It also gave us a lot of time though to really do intense research for the patenting and the intellectual property for our company. I definitely give that time credit for really giving us enough space to be able to dive deep into patents and literature and be able to really know where we could sort of plant our stake a bit in the chemical space and drug discovery land.
One of the biggest I’d say aha moments was we decided that we were going to obviously start the company. My uncle actually works with a really amazing group up in the New Jersey area. He said ‘before you guys really start this, I think you should meet them, and I think you should talk with them.’ He told us nothing about them. He just said ‘I’m flying you to New Jersey and you’re going to meet with them.’
We met at their house, and we had no idea what was going to happen, and it turned into eight hours of them basically just helping us understand that we were just there to create, be inspired and really live out what the company would look like, what we really want to change in the world and how we were going to do it all in this eight-hour span.
It was very almost spiritual and philosophical in its own way, this experience, and so I’d say that that was definitely one of our biggest aha moments was that okay, we’re really going to do this and we’re also going to make sure that we have team building and executive coaching throughout the entire process. We’ve done that now for three years. We’ve kept working with that group and now we’ve expanded it to our entire team, and we meet multiple times a year to really help everyone stay on the mindset that anything’s possible and to stay creative and innovative as much as possible without getting into the day to day and mundane too much, and then it can really stagnate the progress.
Definitely some of our biggest aha moments come from those meetings with that group and continuing to have those experiences.
Some of the biggest challenges I will say have been a little bit of what I mentioned earlier where we do kind of walk this line of – I like to think of us as the best of both worlds, but when you talk to some of the worlds, in this case maybe the psychedelics industry and the more pharmaceutical industries, they have their reasons to believe that what we’re doing might have issues. So it’s definitely been making sure our messaging is always there, we’re educating everyone on what we’re doing and that we’re really getting ourselves out there to be as present as possible in the world so that we can really make sure it’s clear what we’re trying to do and that we absolutely have the team to do it. That has definitely been one of the biggest challenges. But thankfully we’ve ended up in a lot of really good places pretty organically without a big PR or marketing team. We’ve been in the Wall Street Journal a few times now and we’ve even been interviewed by Nature and other big sort of publishers. It turned out to be not as a big of a challenge as I definitely think I thought it was at first. But we still deal with it at times of really how we get our messaging across and how we educate everyone on our entire program and our research and our company.
Taren: Absolutely, you’re fighting some headwinds there for sure. What a nice thank you to the uncle, what a fortuitous opportunity to be able to meet with that think tank, and that’s what it sounds like for that…
Taren: That’s fantastic. What a great opportunity.
Jackie: Yeah, it definitely changed the course of just not only the trajectory of the company in general but even our mindsets, how we were going to approach everything. I’m extremely thankful for them to this day.
Taren: That’s wonderful. You talked about – I don’t know if you would consider them professional mentors, but you’ve had some professional experiences setting up companies as you noted, some cannabis companies. Any lessons learned from those that you’re bringing into your current position? In setting up the company you talked about team building, et cetera, and bringing in great chemists. But you’re really starting from a blank slate. So how are you thinking about what are you next steps? What’s next – the next couple of years for the company?
Jackie: There’s a few things but the main is that we now have a lot of really unique chemistry and unique compounds that we’ve put through some animal studies and it’s really now bringing those through more detailed toxicology work to be able to have our first in-human study. That’s really going to be our main focus and drive over the next year, is that’s really the end goal obviously is to make sure it actually gets to patients and make sure people actually get the chance to see if the efficacy is really there where we believe it will be as we’ve seen in animals. That’s a major focus of ours.
And we’ve also – over the next couple of years it’s also teasing out exactly what our compounds are even doing that make them unique. That’s really what third eye is about, is not only teasing out what our compounds are doing, but then using all of the experimental information and everything else we’re acquiring right now to feed back into that system to really help us understand on a greater level what it is that maybe we need to target when we’re talking about the brain.
Sometimes that’s seen as two different things of more of like here’s this computational kind of platform and then the other side of more of the therapeutics of getting things into humans. But we’ve never seen these as separate things; this is all part of the whole for us because it all relates back to our understanding of what these drugs are, what they’re capable of, and really helps validate the entire model.
Taren: Fascinating. Tell me about the first in-human study. What are you looking at?
Jackie: We haven’t fully decided on the exact target that we’re looking for. We have been more focused on anxiety the last few times. We had a product at one point that we were considering moving into a phase 1. We decided our time was better spent on more of these new compounds that we’ve designed and put through animal studies. And most of the time we’re looking in the social anxiety arena. There’s no approved drugs currently for social anxiety. We also really have a passion around looking at the different mood disorders that are associated with neurodegeneration. We really want to see if we can target some of the mood disorders that are often, whether it’s anxiety or depression or medical PTSD, whatever it might be that ends up leading… can often lead then into maybe a neurodegenerative model.
We have a lot of compounds that really do have amazing learning and memory capabilities in animals. So we know that there would be a lot of opportunity there for patients.
Taren: Fantastic. We look forward to see where you go with this. I just want to touch for a moment on the social anxiety. We’re looking at so much data that’s coming out in research and on the news about social anxiety, especially as it impacts younger girls. As you said, there’s no approved drug for this. This could be a real game changer.
Jackie: Absolutely. We’ve had quite a few interns even during the last three years. A few of them have been very open and honest about their own experiences. They’re undergraduate women and graduate women as well talking about that was really what motivated them to even want to intern with us, just all of the different things they’ve had to try and how the current medications work. A big motivator for us there was that benzodiazepines are actually starting to be a really major concern from an abuse perspective. But because they’re only a schedule 4 drug, they’re not monitored in the same way by the DEA as schedule 1 through 3. There is a huge amount of misuse of benzodiazepines, and they really can be fairly addicting and then they also have a pretty quick tolerance formation, so you end up constantly having to take more. That’s also been a big motivator of ours because right now that’s really the go-to for a lot of anxiety issues.
We want to be able to find better alternatives for that but also have ones that are not going to have that abuse potential. All of our compounds being tested in animals are always also being monitored for their cause of whether it be addiction or just abuse. We definitely have a huge motivation there.
I think it’s also a pretty amazing story to our company, which definitely came out of 2019 and 2020 and really got operational during the pandemic and then really recognizing the need in the social anxiety space, while also being part of this big executive coaching and team building team to focus on mental health. We definitely practice what we preach, and I think that if there’s a company to really do it mindfully it’s going to be ours.
Taren: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. You talk about this coaching team. Have there been other folks in your professional life who have impacted your professional career and have given you good guidance to advance your career?
Jackie: Yeah, absolutely. My Ph.D. advisor definitely had a huge impact on my entire career but also just as a person. I was in his lab for a long time between undergraduate research and then graduate research. He was really the one who introduced me to that concept too of chemical ecology leading to drug discovery and a lot of the innovation there. So he’s been a huge mentor. I continue to still speak to him fairly regularly. I just had dinner with him a couple of weeks ago. From a career perspective, I’ve always been able to still turn back and reach to him when I had questions.
On a more personal note, I also, during my Ph.D., my son was an infant and toddler. So to have a professor while getting a Ph.D. in organic chemistry that was supporting you also as like a young mother, in the sense that he was just there more from a mentorship and support, is fairly rare unfortunately in academia, so I felt extremely fortunate with that as well.
Another big mentor of mine is the uncle I mentioned. He’s been in the pharmaceutical industry for a long time, and really motivated me from a career perspective to want to start my own business and be an entrepreneur and really recognize that there’s a need of bridging that gap between early stage research and development and academia all the way to major pharmaceutical companies. I definitely appreciate his mentorship as well.
I have so many. They’re really big ones from the career perspective. I have a huge family. I’m very fortunate in that. My mom is just… I know plenty of people probably say this, but just super woman. She’s always been a huge support. Everyone around me has always been very supportive. So I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I have a very sound base and lots of ears and people to sort of bounce things off of and really talk to about everything.
I will say going pre-career, back to when I was younger, I had a surprising amount of math and chemistry teachers that were all women and all had graduate degrees. So I really appreciate being able to see that that was possible. I don’t know that there’s a lot of women out there, especially if you don’t come from the most affluent family, like I really didn’t. I didn’t really come from much but from a school perspective to have these women that were in those positions of natural sciences and mathematics; I think that also really helped me recognize that I could then do those things.
Taren: It just illustrates the importance of having role models.
Taren: You’re right, not everybody is fortunate enough to have those kinds of folks in their world or in their sphere. To that end, do you consider yourself to be a role model?
Jackie: I do. It sounds weird to say, but I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to say that I feel like a role model. For a long time it was – I’ve had quite a few other women in chemistry and students that were in graduate programs that definitely have come to me over the years to ask me how did you do it, how did you really get through some of these things? Some of there were also moms. Some of them were not. But just also going through whatever it was in life that made them really question whether or not they could handle going through a fairly male dominated career path. I definitely have always made myself available and wanted to be able to share my experiences and be an open book for whoever really wanted to hear it. I don’t really sugarcoat much, which I think can be helpful too, to make sure that people recognize the reality and also recognize what they might be getting into so that they’re not sort of shocked and scared and run away later. Because there are aspects of the natural sciences, especially math, physics and chemistry, that are not always the friendliest to women. I really try to keep myself out there and help talk to whoever I can.
I went to Auburn University a few weeks ago to do a seminar, and I really try to stay open to doing seminars for academics and just more academic focused conferences, as well as business ones just to keep that word out there. Because when you look across the board at a lot of chemistry departments, there’s not a lot of women, there’s not a lot of that effeminate energy or presence. I think that if I can then maybe help be that out a little bit by going to these seminars and getting to have lunch with some of the students or dinner with some of the students and help them have someone to talk to, then I like to be able to do that.
Taren: Excellent. You keep doing that. Thank you so much for all those students out there. You talked about being an entrepreneur. Do you like being an entrepreneur?
Jackie: It has its moments. I do. I came from family of entrepreneurs. Some successful, some not. I’m also, it’s going to sound strange potentially, but I’m a bit of the black sheep by going into science. Most of my family is artists and musicians, which are entrepreneurs in their own way. I definitely had that motivation of wanting to be able to really start something that I had a lot of say in and that I had a lot of passion behind to really help make an impact. I felt like, especially in the United States, starting my own business was one of the few ways that you could really do that and have a lot of say in what happens. I’ve learned to like certain aspects of entrepreneurship that are a bit overwhelming at times. But definitely from being able to really control my destiny to a certain sense, I love it.
Taren: Perfect. Being an entrepreneur has a lot of advantages. It also has some disadvantages for sure. As I have found, the pros mostly outweigh the cons. So congratulations to you. What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Jackie: The biggest thing is I’ve played piano since I was about six and I love to sing. I have a huge musical side to me that definitely came from my family that most people don’t know about. People try to get me to sing all the time too and I don’t – I refuse.
Taren: So I shouldn’t ask you to sing for me now?
Jackie: No. That’s one thing that I definitely think has been – I think everybody needs to have that thing for themselves that they can go to, especially when they maybe are reaching different walls or different points in their life where they really need something that helps bring them a feeling that nothing else really does. For me that’s definitely singing and playing the piano. So that’s probably the biggest thing most people don’t know.
Taren: That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. I, too, love to sing even though I’m not allowed to because I can’t carry a tune and my family has a no singing policy. That’s my story.
This has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for exploring so much about what you’re doing with the company, the barriers you’re trying to break in terms of new chemistry and thinking about the mind and the brain in a different way, and your personal side as well. Can you share that wow moment that either changed the trajectory of your career that has left a lasting impression on you?
Jackie: Yes. I had a big moment when I was choosing where I was going to do my post-doctorial research after my Ph.D. My professor at the time wanted me to go work with someone at Harvard, and I was more driven by what research I was interested in. So I decided that I was not going to go to Harvard; I was going to go to a much smaller university from a knowledge… not a lot of people know it, but Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, in Canada. I was going to go there because the professor I wanted to work for was doing the research I wanted, even though he wasn’t as established. There were lots of issues I think that quite a few people around me had with that choice when I made it. But I remember making it because that was really what I wanted to do. I decided that in that moment once I was in Vancouver, I realized maybe why I had made that choice. It was because the opioid epidemic hit and still does hit Vancouver very hard. It was my first experience of really seeing that.
Then, again, my father around that same time was diagnosed with his dementia. I had family struggling with alcohol addiction. It was just what I call the trifecta of all of these things around me pointing me towards I needed to come back to Florida, which is where I’m originally from, and I needed to do whatever it took to find a way into the mental health and neurological space. And that I needed to do drug discovery and innovation around CNS disorders. So I left my post-doc very early. I just decided that wasn’t it, I wasn’t going to do that, and I came back to Florida and just followed everything I could to get me to where I am now. I just knew that this was really where I supposed to be.
Taren: Congratulations, Jackie, on a successful start-up. I wish you continued great success. Thank you again so much for sharing so much of your story with us. We’re going to be watching because I love this third eye concept, and I think it’s fascinating what you’re doing.
Jackie: Thank you. Yeah, absolutely and thank you for having me.
Taren: And you know what, I’ve never heard anybody turn down Harvard be so happy. So congrats on a bold choice. One that really fit you. Good job.
Jackie: Thank you. Thanks.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more Wow episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.