As CEO of Tactiva Therapeutics, the Buffalo-based biotechnology company, Matthew Colpoys finds himself with the potential to help make a significant difference in the area’s economic landscape. The company recently announced a capital raise of $35 million, one of the largest venture capital investments in the city’s history, and Colpoys is now preparing to hire up to 45 people to help take the company on what could be a wild ride to get their product and technology FDA-approved for human trials and then, hopefully, to market.
Colpoys founded Tactiva with Roswell Park researchers Dr. Richard Koya and Dr. Kunle Odunsi; the three met through a UB Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership medical entrepreneurship session that Colpoys facilitated. When he learned about their technology and the science behind it, he was convinced that they needed to found a company to capture the value of their idea.
“Richard and Kunle’s concept is amazing. Their innovative process involves using a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer by extracting their blood, genetically engineering and multiplying its cancer-fighting cells, and then injecting them back into the patient’s body,” said Colpoys. “They asked me to help them start the company. So, I agreed. We did an LLC in late 2015, then converted to a C-corp in 2017.”
Colpoys is a self-described “commercial guy, not a scientist.” A Buffalo native, he left around 1979, working and living around the world; he returned here in 2003 and has been here ever since. He’s been the biopharmaceutical field since 1984; he got his “big break” when he was recruited by Genentech in the industry’s infancy. Since then, he’s been deeply involved in startups, witnessing everything from preclinical validations to valuations and new product launches.
To get Tactiva off the ground, he talked to a potential investor, Michael Kellen, who is associated with the Cancer Research Institute, a prestigious New York–based research and funding organization. Kellen agreed to an initial investment higher than Colpoys’ asking amount.
“He gave us $1.5 million—that validated my feelings about the technology,” said Colpoys. Other groundwork included signing a license agreement with Roswell Park, since that’s where the intellectual property was born.
As a Roswell Park spinout, Tactiva Therapeutics is based at the University at Buffalo’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Its connections in Buffalo’s biomedical community are deep; it’s also partnering with UB’s Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics, a Buffalo Billion–funded initiative. In addition, the company receives some funding from the university’s Center for Advanced Technology in Big Data and Health Sciences.
Early on, Koya and Odunsi worked to advance the study through Roswell’s grant-supported programs, as the partners honed their overall message. Colpoys took that message on the road, traveling the world to engage investors and raise money. He was successful, and in late 2018, announced the $35 million Series A financing, led by Panacea Ventures and including Vi Ventures and Efung Capital.
The key activities now are to hire staff to analyze the existing data needed to prepare the investigational new drug application to file with the FDA.
There is a lack of candidates in Buffalo, noted Colpoys. “There aren’t that many biopharmaceutical companies here yet, so some of these people don’t exist in Buffalo,” he said. “For now, we are plugging them in from places like Cornell or Rochester. That’s fine. UB, Canisius, and even D’Youville, are training people for this industry. There will be an abundance of opportunities for them.”
While Buffalo’s lower cost of living and quality of life both help companies start up here affordably and are appealing for potential employees, Colpoys notes that Buffalo’s business landscape still lacks investors familiar with this industry.
“Things are evolving at a great pace here,” he said. “We have resources like UB and the State of New York—there’s a lot of legitimate interest. But our industry needs tremendous amounts of capital. The mindset here doesn’t understand this industry’s massive dilution. So they don’t like to see the companies taking on further money. We need a win to show how it works.”
That win, he admits, is a long shot. “Taking a pragmatic view, we’re going to fail,” added Colpoys. “Most scientific ideas don’t pan out. With most chemical or biological products, you’re just concerned about whether it works when you put it in humans. And while immunotherapies like Tactiva have less risk associated with them versus those products and have been shown to work, the complex delivery method is the challenge. We’re delivering a process, not making a product.”
“Every step—from the moment a patient sits down in the chair to have their blood drawn, to its shipping, processing, and re-shipping back to be infused back into them—has to be rigorously documented in terms of chain of custody,” said Colpoys. “You have to spend a lot of time and energy on process, quality control, and validation. That’s a major focus of the FDA review: Can we make it and deliver it with total control?”
With positive signs coming from investors—like a potential joint venture in Asia—and the scientific community, Colpoys stays realistic.
“Everyone who’s seen the science is interested. That’s exciting and amazing,” he said. “Very accomplished scientists are willing to move or commute here … we keep clicking off little milestones.”
He believes that by fall of 2019, they’ll have “a good signal of where we stand with FDA,” and hopes to be in a strong position to do an initial public offering in early 2020. If all is successful, his concerns will shift to whether the company will be able to transfer and scale. He plans to stick with it as long as he can.
“The company may grow to a point where they need a different skillset than I have, like if they have thousands of employees,” he said. “I can do something else—after you have a win, all of your next projects become easier. I love looking at good opportunities, I’m interested in actively investing and trying to grow good opportunities here in Buffalo. It’s a good way to pay it back.”