How did she do it? A Q&A with Ciara Kennedy, CEO of Amplyx

Peggy Wallace, managing partner, Golden Seeds

August 23, 2018

Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate female entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How Did She Do It?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.

Today, Peggy Wallace, managing partner of Golden Seeds, interviews Ciara Kennedy, president and CEO of Amplyx. Below, they discuss the work Amplyx is doing to advance novel therapeutic solutions to life-threatening infections.

CK: Amplyx is a San Diego-based company developing advanced therapeutic solutions for life-threatening fungal infections. I joined the company in October 2015, coming on board as the company was about to transition from a research organization to a development-stage company. I joined to transform and elevate the team to be development-oriented and appropriately financed to advance our lead asset and propel Amplyx forward.

CK: We’ve created a brand-new class of treatments to attack fungal infections. While there are some other treatments available in the market, they are hard on patients, and patients continue to die from these infections. They’re often vulnerable because of another condition or because they’re already in the hospital, which compromises their immune systems and makes them more susceptible. We’ve conducted Phase 1 clinical studies and animal efficacy studies with excellent outcomes. We’re now kicking off Phase 2 studies to see how this treatment performs in infected patients.

CK: Like any organization facing a change, we’ve had to overcome challenges at multiple levels. Moving from research to development causes a huge shift in culture. It’s important to keep the company grounded in good science, while growing the team and bringing in new skill sets to meet demands for development. The magnitude of financing in a development-focused company is much different than that of a research organization, as well. In research phases, $10 million is a lot. In the development phase, that might only fund one clinical trial. So, I needed to bring in a new team, new leadership and new investors — and all as quickly as possible.

CK: When I came to Amplyx, I was helping the original founder socialize the assets with high-caliber investors I’d worked with previously, such as NEA and RiverVest. We closed a $50 million Series B in October 2015 to fund the company in Phase 2 development. It wasn’t such a challenging round because we had a very solid asset. Investors tend to invest in people as much as assets, and we built a strong team at Amplyx. Many team members had worked with me at a prior company, and we had a reputation as a team that could execute and that was experienced in drug development. Investors were confident we could put together the best plan and execute on it. That was an area I had a lot of comfort in — bringing in that money and adding investors to the company.

About a year later, in fall 2016, we were well-financed, had started human Phase 1 studies and had started to raise the visibility of the company. In summer 2017, we decided to raise a large Series C to fund the company through proof of concept studies and determine which type of patients this treatment can best help. At the end of the day, we have a great asset being driven forward by a great team and supported by investors who understand drug development.

We’re working to cure life-threatening infections; it’s a life-saving therapy. For me, that’s the type of product I want to work on. I don’t want to work on products with incremental improvements. I want to focus on ones that will make a difference. We all have different ways we can spend our time and make choices accordingly. Our investors are really motivated to do things that make a big difference — that’s how you create big value.

CK: Infectious disease is an interesting space because animal models are predictive of clinical disease. That’s not always the case; they don’t always translate. We’ve worked through our Phase 1 clinical trials. Now we’re in Phase 2 studies, and determining if this drug will kill the bug in a patient with the acceptable safety profile. This year is all about executing — it’s where the rubber meets the road. Then the next phase further down the road is shifting from development to commercialization.

CK: Having the right team in place — and having a balanced team — is important. During research, it’s easy to focus only on what you know from a research perspective. In prior companies, I’ve seen the void between research and development. Proper communication can help close that void.

Adding some development resources to the team during research can help, as well. It’s important not to do research in a vacuum. There are things you can do during research periods to help set up for development, and doing them early on rather than redoing it later can create real value, saving time and money.

The two hardest transitions to make are going from research to development (and in some ways this is the hardest) and going from development to commercialization. It’s challenging to make great hires when you have limited resources. A good investment can be hiring a consultant. Having the right advice is always money well spent.

And — you don’t always have to hire someone to get that advice. You can always ask the right questions to people in your network. You’d be surprised at how much people want to help small companies. Never be shy about asking for help.

One of the challenges in terms of raising money is telling your story in a way that people can translate to their terms and determine if this is working or not. You need to lay out the story in a way that clearly shows people how you will know if you’re being successful. This is critically important to raising money and attracting team members. You need a clear path to the next value inflection points and where you’ll go from there. It’s a road map to value creation and is key to efficient fundraising and rallying the team around your vision — then achieving that vision.

If you can do that in a couple of sentences, it makes a big difference in how your organization functions and how you finance your company.

CK: Golden Seeds was one of the initial investors and was foundational for funding Amplyx in the early phase, plus they’ve shown a lot of loyalty in subsequent rounds. I’ve presented a couple of times at the Golden Seeds partner meeting and have had tremendous conversations, and felt enormous support about what we’re doing. Going back to what I said before about asking for help, that can sometimes be uncomfortable. Golden Seeds can be really helpful in creating the right ecosystem to connect to people and get advice from them. You have to put yourself out there in the first place. Getting feedback and having the hard conversations about your company, ideas and teams — you want to do that long before you have the same conversation with potential investors.

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