Entrepreneurship Fuels Scientific Advancement for Early-Career Scientist

Dr. Cheuk Man Cherie Au, an instructor of pharmacology in medicine, humbly acknowledges the need for continuous learning in entrepreneurship despite her experience and achievement as a translational researcher. An early-career academic scientist and budding entrepreneur, Dr. Au has successfully obtained awards and grants for her groundbreaking research in drug development and the interest of potential investors.

Recently, Dr. Au received the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Scholar-in-Training Award, generously supported by the Prostate Cancer Foundation, one of four awardees. Furthermore, her project was awarded the Daedalus Fund for Innovation, showcasing her valuable contributions to the field and the commercial potential of her research.

To further advance their translational research to patients, Dr. Au and Dr. Paraskevi Giannakakou have launched ARMA BIO, Inc. Dr. Au has secured a dual Fast Track Phase I STTR/Phase II SBIR award for early-career scientists from the National Cancer Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Giannakakou as initial funding to develop the program under ARMA BIO, Inc. She and Dr. Giannakakou have garnered interest from potential investors through participation in pitch competitions such as Science to Startup, and are one of four semi-finalists in the 2024 AIM-HI Women's Venture Competition out of 60 submissions. Being selected as a semi-finalist not only offers a chance for substantial funding, but also underscores the team’s innovative approach and dedication to advancing cancer research.

Enterprise Innovation is thrilled to share Dr. Au's innovation journey. Her passion, insights and experience navigating the realms of academia and entrepreneurship can serve as an inspiration to her peers and the wider Weill Cornell Medicine community.

Can you tell us more about your research project with Dr. Paraskevi Giannakakou and your recent awards?

I am launching a startup, ARMA BIO, with Dr. Giannakakou and Dr. K.C. Nicolaou. I will serve as the head of research. Dr. Giannakakou is going to be our chief scientific officer and Dr. K.C. Nicolaou, a well-known chemist at Rice University, will act as medicinal chemistry consultant.

The technology being developed by ARMA BIO is rooted in our team’s mechanistic understanding of prostate cancer (PC) biology and genetics discovered through our research here at Weill Cornell Medicine. Prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer among men and leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. The majority of these deaths occur when patients stop responding to treatment. A key mechanism of treatment resistance is the expression of the androgen receptor (AR) splice variant 7, called AR-V7. More than 70 percent of patients express AR-V7 and do not respond to standard of care including all AR-targeting therapies. Currently, there is no pharmacologic inhibitor of AR-V7, leaving hundreds of thousands of patients without any therapeutic options.

To overcome this challenge, ARMA BIO will be developing first-in-class molecular glue degraders (MGDs) that target AR-V7 based on the foundational intellectual property developed at Weill Cornell. Our competitive edge is that our drug is able to inhibit AR-V7 and also AR full length in a single treatment, which allows us to address a significantly broader patient population, while preventing or delaying the onset of AR-V7 mediated resistance.   

There is lots of exciting news about our research lately. Our project was awarded the 2024 Daedalus Fund for Innovation, which provides up to $200K annually for two years to advance technology development in our laboratories at Weill Cornell. In April 2024, I was honored to receive the AACR Scholar-in-Training Award supported by the Prostate Cancer Foundation. I delivered an oral presentation on the groundbreaking research on "First-in-class AR-V7/AR-fl molecular glue degrader for prostate cancer treatment" under the mentorship of Dr. Giannakakou.

What stage is your startup at currently?

We have made significant progress beyond the initial ideation phase. Recently, we secured a Small Business Transition Grant for early-career scientists from the National Cancer Institute, a dual Fast Track Phase I STTR/Phase II SBIR award totaling 2.4 million dollars in funding for drug optimization and assessment as we launch ARMA BIO. In addition, Dr. Giannakakou and I, representing a women-led entrepreneurship, could potentially win another one million dollars as an investment into ARMA BIO as we advanced to semi-finalist stage in the 2024 AIM-HI Women's Venture Competition.   

We are actively pursuing various opportunities to accelerate the translation of cancer drug discoveries into tangible treatments. We have presented our research to several investors and are updating them on developments, so we are hopeful to secure an investor to advance our treatment approach.

Additionally, we are working with Dr. Brian Kelly, director of business development and licensing at the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Weill Cornell Medicine, to file a patent for our technology, which is one of many areas where Enterprise Innovation collaborates with us to advance IP and commercial strategies.

Had you always wanted to go down the entrepreneurship path when you were a graduate student or a postdoctoral associate?  

Initially, my focus was on academia, but as I delved deeper into drug development research, I realized the possibility for entrepreneurship. The Enterprise Innovation team saw market potential in our drug development project and suggested that we participate in the Business Plan Challenge program. During the course, I learned a lot of presentation, leadership and business development skills. At the end, we won first place in the pitch competition judged by venture capitalists. Winning the Business Plan Challenge pitch competition and founding ARMA BIO opened my eyes to the possibilities beyond traditional academic paths. Engaging in entrepreneurial activities fuels my scientific research.

I’m glad I had this experience so that I can accelerate drug development efforts.

As an early-career scientist/entrepreneur within academia, what do you find most challenging?

One of the challenges is finding mentors who are at a similar career stage as me and can provide guidance on both academic and entrepreneurial endeavors. Additionally, securing funding for our startup and balancing academic responsibilities can be demanding.

What resources at Weill Cornell Medicine can help your startup succeed?

The entrepreneurship ecosystem at Weill Cornell Medicine, particularly Enterprise Innovation, has been an invaluable resource. I’m especially thankful to Brian Kelly, Loren Busby (director of BioVenture eLab), Ehsan Yazdi (Entrepreneur-in-Residence) and James Bellush (manager of scientific scouting).

Brian and Loren always inform us of grant opportunities befitting an early-stage company like ours. It was Brian who suggested that we apply to the AIM-HI Women's Venture Competition. James advises us in the application process. Ehsan is a perfect consultant because he understands what industry wants. All these advisors are able to think one step ahead for our startup. For instance, Loren has introduced us to the incubator at Rockefeller University as an option for lab work when we transition into proof-of-principle data collection under our SBIR/STTR grant.

What advice would you give graduate students considering entrepreneurship?

When considering entrepreneurship, I encourage graduate students to maintain an open mind and view every opportunity as a chance to learn and grow. In today's landscape, many students are eager to pursue industry opportunities immediately after completing their doctorate degrees. Whether your path leads you to academia or industry, it is crucial to embrace every experience as a valuable learning opportunity. Explore various funding options and don't hesitate to seek guidance from mentors and entrepreneurship programs. Success often hinges on perseverance and adaptability, especially when navigating the intricate pathways of academia and entrepreneurship. It is important to stay strong, flexible and remain committed to learning and growth as you work toward your goals. This mindset will help you handle challenges and opportunities effectively.