Winner of last year’s BioChallenge Startup Competition and this year’s JEDCO Challenge, Chosen Diagnostics Founder Sunyoung Kim is bringing new hope to families of preterm infants.
Following an academic career spanning two continents and multiple research topics, Sunyoung Kim, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at LSU Health Sciences Center, took on a position she never anticipated — corporate executive. In addition to her academic role, Dr. Kim founded Chosen Diagnostics Inc., which seeks to improve and personalize patient care through products such as a biomarker test that offers earlier detection of a severe bowel disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) that affects 6,000 infants in the United States each year.
Early clinical trials for the test have been highly encouraging, and the results have generated a wave of excitement in the medical community.
Kim’s accomplishment has also been raking in awards on the local level.
In November, Chosen Diagnostics won the $25,000 grand prize at the 2016 BioChallenge Startup Competition, an annual event organized by the New Orleans BioInnovation Center to identify and support local life sciences startups. She is the first woman to win the award.
On the heels of that success, the company took top honors in the 2017 JEDCO Challenge, held this past March during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. The win included a $60,000 prize package. Judging panels weren’t the only ones who recognized the company’s merit — in both competitions, Chosen Diagnostics won the “crowd favorite” prizes as well.
As she adjusts to this unexpected spotlight, Dr. Kim reflects on what it takes to build a healthcare startup (hint: a lot of late nights) and why Louisiana is the right place for it to take shape. This interview was edited for length.
Biz: Did you ever imagine you’d be running a startup enterprise?
Kim: Never. My day job is that I’m an associate professor here at LSU Health. I got my PhD from the University of Michigan, and I’ve been in several other academic institutions — Minnesota, Virginia, Harvard, and also in Italy for nine months. As an academic, I’ve been traveling quite a bit for professional reasons. You get invested in your research program, you get invested in your students and teaching, and I never thought that I would become an entrepreneur later in life.
Chosen Diagnostics really came from a project that was initiated by neonatologists in our community. They asked me about a year and a half ago to create this test for them. I was quite astonished at their passion about making a change for their patients. As I became more educated by them about what they needed, it finally dawned on me that the only way it was actually going to be put into use was to commercialize it. That’s what really triggered me to form a startup company.
Biz: How much of your time do you spend wearing your president hat vs. your professor hat?
Kim: That allocation keeps changing. The university is a state institution, so it’s important that I don’t violate any state laws and follow the requirements. The university and the state do allow 20 percent of my time to be used for other activities, and so right now I probably do use 20 percent of my time, but it depends on the week.
With the pitches, it was a lot of late nights and working on weekends. I run my own research group that’s quite large, so that requires an extensive amount of time. What suffers the most is sleep. During the NSF (National Science Foundation) program, because that was a formal academic activity, I could devote more than 20 percent of my time, but it wasn’t for the company. I couldn’t talk to people about my diagnostic test. I’m not allowed to sell or pitch anything. But it opened up a lot more dialogue and data for me to collect about what the needs were within the medical community.
You do have to devote a lot of time to it. I actually asked my children if it was OK last summer – because that’s when it all started nucleating in my mind. I said ‘OK, I’ve got this kind of crazy idea, and I think I need to try it and see how it works out.’ I had to do a pitch for them – to explain what the test was, that it was going to help potentially 2,000 infants not die a year, how it would save them from chronic medical care for the rest of their lives. I wasn’t sure if at the end I would be completely successful, but I felt that it was important that I try. But it also was realistically a situation which I would spend less time with my kids. And, like investors, they kind of looked and took an estimate, and they were like, ‘OK, how much time do you need? How long is this going to last? And what am I going to get out of it?’ So there’s negotiations all the way around for time, energy and whatnot.
Biz: There are a lot of good ideas in the life sciences arena, and you’ve now had two big ‘wins’ in challenge competitions. What is it about your venture that speaks to people?
Kim: I wish I knew — if we could bottle that up, then all enterprises would be successful! With all the different kinds of technologies, it’s exciting to be in New Orleans and watch that growing and have bioinnovation be a commercial, viable enterprise in our city.
But there are different ways to think about those opportunities [bioinnovation]. The first is to look at opportunities within your scientific or medical specialty — so you might care about cancer or neurology or orthopedics. The second way is to think about the type of technique you’re using — a surgical device, big data or digital health and computation.
But the third way to think about it — and I guess the way that really resonated with me — is to consider what is unique about us here in Louisiana and New Orleans. What are our medical challenges, and what do we need here that maybe California or Boston or Illinois doesn’t? We have a really high rate of preterm birth – it’s one of the highest in the country. So when the neonatologists told me that these preterm infants needed this assistance, it made sense that it was actually born and conceived here. That was my final thought process in terms of why to go ahead and launch this.
In terms of why the crowd cares, that surprised me, too. My scientific specialty before was more cancer and cancer drugs – I’d never really worked in pediatrics or neonatology. But there’s a fierce drive to protect our young, and I think the thing that has been the most interesting is seeing businessmen coming up to me and telling me they want to take care of their grandbabies, and what can I do to help them? It’s a very emotional and psychological response that we have, and it’s really deep-seated for all of us, so maybe that’s why?
Biz: How has all the recognition boosted your efforts?
Kim: It’s just tremendous. After the BioChallenge in November – at midnight – I was reached out to by parents who had lost their children. Two of them found me. Then, also by midnight, I had the leaders of patient advocacy groups – from both the East and West coasts – contact me, and I’m thinking, “How do they know about this already?” They immediately wanted to engage in discussions about what we were doing. I’m heading out with one of my postdocs to California for the first meeting for this disease, and we’re there to meet with all the key opinion leaders in the area, so it’s exciting. It’s really important in terms of moving forward with the disease — not just here but elsewhere in the country. So I’m grateful for all the press.
Biz: How are you building the company – are you planning to staff up?
Kim: Right now, I have one and a half volunteers. They’ve been working with me and helping me understand and develop the business as well as the operational aspect. The winnings aren’t sufficient to really pay reasonable salaries, and the money for the prizes is being allocated to helping us enroll more clinical sites for our current trial as well as getting that FDA approval, which is necessary for other hospitals to use the test themselves. So we’re looking for investors, grants and also partnerships with other companies to help us generate more revenue to hire more people here in our community.
It’s surprising [to some] that we do that in academics. We do. Most people in the public think that we are teachers, and it’s true, but we also have to bring in our own revenue for our research programs, so I’m accustomed to bringing in million-dollar budgets to hire people here and have them work on science questions to help push forward our advancement. It’s just a different group, is the way I view it.
Biz: What do you envision as possible avenues for growth for Chosen Diagnostics?
Kim: Right now, our goal is to complete our second clinical trial that we’re in. We know our test already has a really high rate of identifying true positives (93 percent) as well as true negatives (95 percent) because of our pilot – the first in human clinical trial. That’s double what the prior diagnostic can do, which is about 44 percent. If you think about it – and it took a businessperson to point this out to me – you’re better off flipping a coin than running a test to tell you what’s going to happen to your baby and whether or not they’re going to get the disease and die. So, our test is much more robust in that way.
In terms of moving it forward to other hospitals, that’s where enrolling other hospital sites in our clinical trial is important. Right now, we have four hospitals in Louisiana. Two out in California are considering it, and we’re also reaching out to a major hospital in Cincinnati. If they like what they see, and we can reproduce our results, they’re going to be our first customers.
After that, you have to figure out the channels to get faster adoption across the community. We were fortunate with a program through the National Science Foundation. We got a grant to interview 110 people in the medical ecosystem around the country in five weeks – a blistering pace. But some of the folks that we talked to are at ARUP Laboratories, which are in Salt Lake City. They are the third-largest reference laboratory in the country (after LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics). They have the largest percentage of the market for perinatal, neonatal and pediatric diagnostic tests, and so they are very interested in talking to us and licensing. If we get that type of traction, they have 3,000 hospitals in their catalog, so they can help send the word out to other clinics and say, “Hey, this is a test you can use.”
It’s not a classic type of marketing strategy where I’m asking each person in the public to buy my product. I’m asking the hospitals to buy, so they need their own forms of validation to know that this is a real thing.
Biz: How has LSU supported this journey?
Kim: They’ve been super. I spend quite a bit of time talking to vice chancellors and deans and the office for economic strategic development. I talk to tech transfer quite a bit in terms of intellectual property, and also my own department. At first, it’s a strange ostrich that just kind of shows up in the middle of the room, but the more they have heard about it, the more I talk about it, it’s really a very natural extension of what we do. We’re used to discovery. We’re used to intersecting more than one discipline together and creating something out of it that wasn’t there before. It’s just not thinking about it in commercial terms. But in the end, I think the support has really been overwhelming because, fundamentally, it’s an orphan disease. I’m not pretending it’s going to be a billion-dollar company. But I do think it’s definitely going to be a million-dollar company.
But the important thing for us is not that, it’s that we’re helping people, we’re taking care of people. Our discoveries are being used for people, and so that always has just undying support here in our halls. It’s been wonderful to watch.
Biz: Do you think your experience might open doors for others in the life sciences sector locally to bring their ideas to market?
Kim: I don’t think of myself as a pioneer. I think of myself as just a working mom who’s trying to get through the day. Most days are not perfect. You hope for some traction by the end of the day, and then you try it again the next day.
In terms of inspiring others, that’s up to them. Someone pointed out to me that I was the first woman to win one of these pitch competitions in the area, and I guess that surprised me. Then it was pointed out that I’m making a case for LSU in health, and I really haven’t thought of it that way. And yes, I guess I’m making inroads in a new medical area that hadn’t been appreciated before. So, I guess that’s the definition of a pioneer? But that’s mostly for a rearview mirror to make those decisions. At the end, if you look back, then you can see the distance you covered, but you don’t think about it actively when you’re going forward.
Favorite book? “All the Pretty Horses,” “All’s Fair,” and “Gone with the Wind”
Favorite TV shows? “The Big Bang Theory” and “Seinfield”
Who do you look up to? My mother, my father and Frida Kahlo
Biggest life lessons learned? A ship at harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.
Best advice ever received? Work harder than everybody.
Hobbies? Watching youth soccer and baking (although I have not done much lately.)
Daily habits? Drink two cups of hot water and eat chocolate all day long.
Pet peeve(s)? When someone does not offer their seat for an elderly person
What would you say is our region’s biggest strength and weakness? Our weakness is that our citizens do not realize and respect how smart they are. Our strength is the community’s spirit and perseverance.
Saving Lives and Money
What is NEC?
Chosen Diagnostics’ biomarker test provides earlier detection of a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
The most common and serious gastrointestinal-related cause of death in premature infants, NEC affects primarily preemies, including an estimated 12 percent of premature infants who weigh less than 3.3 pounds at birth. Of those cases, approximately 30 percent will result in death.
The disease typically appears in the first two weeks of life and is characterized by the death of intestinal tissue, which allows in bacteria that causes infection. Treatment typically includes antibiotics, IV fluids or surgery.
The cost of treating NEC accounts for 19 percent of NICU costs annually and an estimated $5 billion per year in hospitalizations in the U.S. alone.
Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
Did you know?
Louisiana has the second-highest preterm birth rate in the country.
Mississippi – 13%
Louisiana – 12.3%
Alabama – 11.7%
Lowest is Vermont at 7.3%.
SOURCE: March of Dimes 2016 Premature Birth Report Card