Cutting-Edge Company Raises Millions to Revolutionize Anesthesia
Entrepreneurship Academy Serves as Springboard
By Tim Akin
As UC Davis professor and veterinarian Robert Brosnan headed toward the campus conference center one evening five years ago, he had one thing on his mind: knocking people out—both literally and figuratively.
Over the next several days at the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Biomedical + Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy, Brosnan finally found an audience that understood the wow factor of his research, and could help him with the network, advice and connections to bring his passion and technology to life.
Brosnan, an expert in anesthesia in the Department of Surgical and Radiological Sciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has developed patented and patent-pending technology and has identified agents in several novel classes of chemistry that could lead to better and more cost-effective general anesthetics for use in operating rooms and surgical centers. His research focuses on cardiovascular and respiratory effects of anesthetics and on the mechanisms of anesthetic action.
His goal is nothing short of revolutionizing an area of medicine and patient care that is based on a medical mystery that is 200 years old.
General anesthetics have been used in surgery for 170 years, yet how the inhaled drugs work is one of the great mysteries of neuroscience—and a pharmaceutical field with plenty of room for innovation.
In fact, in 2009 a major professional anesthesia group issued nine recommendations to lower the rate of anesthetic-related complications. One of the recommendations was to make advances in the science of anesthetic drugs. In 2014, they repeated the call for “safer drugs and techniques” as one of six recommendations.
The first general anesthetics used in people were nitrous oxide, chloroform and ether. More than a century and a half later, anesthesiologists are still using similar ether anesthetics that have been modified to make the drugs not flammable when they are delivered to patients. However, these drugs have substantial downsides.
“These are drugs that have some significant side effects, so there’s certainly a need to develop new agents,” Brosnan said of the current choices available to physicians and veterinarians.
“Our laboratory has identified what we think is a plausible molecular mechanism of action for these drugs,” Brosnan explained. “This has allowed us to make predictions regarding new anesthetic agents that nobody has ever studied before. These inhaled drugs have novel receptor effects that appear to cause fewer side effects and provide beneficial actions not available with current drugs.”
Brosnan’s approach allows him to test new agents on specific receptors, looking to minimize negative anesthetic impacts on the heart, lungs and other major systems, leading to drug candidates that are likely to be safer and decrease postoperative complications and costs.
One Health—One Medicine
At the Biomedical + Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy in 2012, Brosnan met UC Davis alumnus Mark Holman, a veteran entrepreneur and business owner in Davis, who was serving as a mentor. Holman was “knocked out” by Brosnan’s description of his research, which could benefit billions of human and animal patients.
The fact that Brosnan is a veterinary, not a human medical doctor, and that he is pushing the envelope across both fields, underscores the potential of more cross-disciplinary teamwork. The goal of the global One Health movement is to forge co-equal, inclusive collaborations between physicians, veterinarians, dentists, nurses and other scientific-health and environmentally related disciplines.
Holman did his due diligence and interviewed many medical industry leaders and researchers before forming a startup, dubbed Expanesthetics. The company licensed the intellectual property from the university, recruited clinical and scientific advisory boards, elected a board of directors and has brought investors aboard to pave a lab-to-market path.
Brosnan, himself an alumnus who earned his DVM and Ph.D. from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, says he probably wouldn’t have been able to pursue a business around his research without Holman.
“I think the discovery would probably have died without somebody like Mark to help bring that forward,” Brosnan said.
“It’s a neat opportunity to bring together academic research and business experience to hopefully make an important advance in a field that has seen very little innovation in the past few decades.”
At the Gate of Big Pharma
The Davis-based company is wading into an entrenched, multibillion dollar global market for general anesthetics dominated by large pharmaceutical and medical services companies. Holman, Brosnan, and a broader team are undaunted, confident they can develop better alternatives with the help of the know-how of their strong UC Davis networks.
“This is an Aggie startup, through and through,” Holman said. “We are working to solve fundamental problems that have existed in anesthesia for almost 200 years”
Holman has the business experience and startup street cred. He’s advised other ventures he met through the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, including the Angels on Campus program, a proving ground for entrepreneurs to hone their pitches to investors.
“Companies like Expanesthetics, and there are dozens now, are exactly the reason we created and continue to grow our entrepreneurship academies.”
“Companies like Expanesthetics, and there are dozens now, are exactly the reason we created and continue to grow our entrepreneurship academies,” said Professor Andrew Hargadon, the institute’s founder and faculty director. The institute has trained more than 2,000 researchers in academies and fellows programs that focus on helping them bring their innovations to market.
“They represent the interdisciplinary vision of this university—scientists working across fields and with industry to turn their leading scientific research into practical and world-changing applications.”
Using his process, funded in part by a $1 million National Institute of Health grant, Brosnan has since continued to do screening tests in his lab. He also was awarded a competitive proof of concept grant from the University of California. He is focusing on compounds likely to be new drug candidates, all of which will need further research and development. To help with that, Expanesthetics has raised almost $3 million from private investors, many of whom are affiliated with UC Davis and over a third of whom are anesthesiologists. And Holman has grown Expanesthetics’ staff, including bringing aboard UC Davis biomedical engineering graduate Shane Austin ’14 as the chief operating officer.
“Surgical anesthesia in the 21st century should look completely different than it did in the 1840s,” said Holman. “Based on new scientific discoveries and inventions licensed exclusively to Expanesthetics, we are working to expand the choice of general anesthetics available for anesthesia professionals to use in order to improve patient outcomes and simultaneously reduce the overall cost of anesthetic delivery.”
As chairman and CEO, Holman assembled an experienced founding board that included Dr. Claire Pomeroy, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and former head of the UC Davis Health System; local resident Robert Erwin, president of iBio; UC Davis alumnus Dr. Todd Strumwasser ‘77, senior vice president of operations for Dignity Health’s Bay Area Service Area; and Rick Fowler, an experienced finance and operations executive with many UC Davis connections. Drs. Pomeroy and Strumwasser recently retired after four years on the board. They are followed by former UC Foundation board member and GSM adjunct professor and Executive-in-Residence Lon Hatamiya who previously served as Secretary of the California Department of Technology, Trade and Commerce.
Brosnan chairs Expanesthetics’ Scientific Advisory Board and hopes Expanesthetics will continue to attract much-needed research funding since anesthetics is a woefully underfunded field. While he has chosen not to take an equity stake in the company, he would receive proceeds from royalties on the intellectual property should it eventually generate revenue.
“There is a lot of room for improvement in the drugs that we use,” said Brosnan. Holman is optimistic and prepared for the long haul, including the prospect of multiple clinical trials and reviews to apply to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to begin testing on humans. It can take more than a decade and over $350 million to get a typical new drug from the laboratory onto the pharmacy shelf, although inhalation general anesthetics have been known to proceed faster and with less expense.
“Anesthetics represent a multi-billion dollar market,” Holman said. “Surgeons, anesthesiologists, hospitals and patients deserve an improved surgical experience based on the latest discoveries.”
Hargadon said the prospect for more new ventures like Expanesthetics is one of the reasons the School of Veterinary Medicine now co-sponsors the institute’s Biomedical + Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy (BMEA). The most recent three-day BMEA was held July 10 – July 12, 2017, and Holman again served as a mentor.
Applications for the 2018 BMEA will be accepted through early June for the academy, which will take place in July.
Tim Akin is the executive director of marketing and communications for the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.
This article was updated on August 22, 2017, to reflect the latest developments.