By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D. and Christian Kopfli
We have heard about restaurants and their struggles in this pandemic, but few have heard about an atypical group of promising biotech companies that are private and in jeopardy. The unique biotechnologies these companies offer to help address COVID may perish as collateral damage.
We are two of the co-founders of such a private biotechnology company, called Chromocell Corporation. Kambiz originally invented the foundational biotechnology behind Chromocell when he was a 24-year old graduate student in a Nobel-Prize winning laboratory at The Rockefeller University. At the time, Kambiz’s research was encountering challenges as the then-used methods for engineering cells slowed down his main science project. He was desperate to find a solution and came up with an idea that had the potential to overcome the barrier. The university filed a patent application on the invention that it would own, as Kambiz was considered an employee.
Meanwhile, Christian had just gone from simultaneously completing his masters in law at Columbia University and his Ph.D. in law from the University of Zurich to start a brand new job as associate at a large law firm in New York City where he worked with many companies including some of that era’s most exciting start-ups. We were friends and when we started talking about the science and how it could help speed through and overcome obstacles in the lab, we decided to give it a go and start a biotech company together, with Christian as its chief executive officer and Kambiz its chief scientific officer.
However, it took a good two years before we obtained the necessary rights to the technology and set up a small incubator laboratory upon Kambiz’s graduation with his Ph.D. in 2003. Fast-forward to 2020, we brought the technology to work and used it to make pioneering discoveries in treacherously difficult scientific and business landscapes. Here is a taste of what we used our science to accomplish.
We developed cells that mimic human salt taste biology and used these, like miniature taste buds, for turbo taste testing of natural extracts to discover new natural ingredient combinations that make table salt taste more salty. The world’s largest food companies as well as the most innovative startups are now starting to use our natural flavors to substantially cut sodium in food. We also created cells that mimic human pain perception and discovered non-addictive pain blockers that the FDA fast-tracked for clinical trials to help address the opioid epidemic. Christian presented this program at The White House as part of Chris Christie’s commission on the opioid epidemic. After establishing a robust R&D organization, Kambiz left his day-to-day role at the biotech to establish Research Foundation to Cure AIDS, a public charity we created and to which we donated a license to all our technology in order to develop a cure for AIDS that is available to all those in need, regardless of ability to pay.
Finding all-natural salt taste enhancers and non-addictive pain blockers validates our science, but Chromocell is not a cash-rich company. Given the immediate ability to commercialize some of the technology, we decided to bootstrap the company with funding from friends and family. This allowed us to focus on projects that further public health, both in the nutritional and the therapeutics space.
We worked around the clock seven days a week. The idea of a break or vacation was a distant memory. We never cashed out, and more than once, including now, we have poured all of our personal assets into the company to keep it afloat. In this way, we are no different than a local restaurant or corner deli in the face of the pandemic.
The same way we have made inroads and have much left to offer to help improve our nation’s diet, to help address the opioid epidemic, and to help accelerate a cure for HIV/AIDS, our platform technology holds promise to help in the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. However, as the pandemic has slowed down the economy dramatically, we are facing an uncertain future.
What our company hopes to find are industry and financial partners that support our venture to bring novel sodium- and sugar-sparing technologies to market, as well as proceeding with our therapeutic endeavors that hold strong promise to combat COVID-19-related illness and to find vaccines.
We are grateful for this opportunity to share our story in our local community newspaper, WestView News, where we are very much a part of our community, dedicated to doing our part to contribute to all our lives and livelihoods. We only hope that we will survive to do so. It will be critical for our organization that the financing vehicles that the CARES act set up will be made available to organizations like ours. We have successfully built a viable business for almost 20 years. Having access to, for example, the Main Street Loan Facilities or other financing options will be decisive whether we can continue our work to further public health.
Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D. obtained his doctoral degree at The Rockefeller University where he invented Chromovert® Technology. Kambiz co-founded Chromocell Corporation based upon the technology and served as its Chief Scientific Officer until leaving to establish and head Research Foundation to Cure AIDS (RFTCA). Christian Kopfli co-founded Chromocell Corporation in 2002, serving initially as General Counsel before becoming Chief Executive Officer in 2005. Prior to joining Chromocell, he was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell. He received a doctoral degree in law from the University of Zurich and earned his LL.M. from Columbia Law School in New York City. Christian is a Board Member of BioNJ and admitted to the Bar in New York and Switzerland. To support our work, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.