In our first ever Beyond the Biotech profile, meet JLABS @ BE resident Alain Vicari, CEO of Calypso Biotech, a startup working to combat autoimmune conditions such as Celiac disease. From scuba diving with octopuses to having coffee with Darwin, Alain’s profile has it all.
What’s a fun fact about yourself?
My favorite hobby is scuba diving and I have always been fascinated by octopuses. That is probably what drove me to start veterinary studies, although I never encountered a sick octopus to care for, and I unfortunately live far from the seaside anyway.
Tell us the story behind the founding of your company. What’s the personal and scientific inspiration behind founding this company?
The inception of Calypso came through the alignment of several planets. Dr. Yolande Chvatchko and I are translational immunologists, and after many years spent in the pharma industry, we thought that there had to be more nimble, productive, and fun ways to develop innovative drugs. At the same time, the big pharma headquarters where we worked in Geneva closed, the research projects we worked on were deprioritized, but the company’s VC arm decided to help spin out the most promising programs. All the ingredients were there for Yolande and me to take off.
How do you hope your startup could impact or change the lives of patients?
We work on conditions, such as Celiac disease, where there are currently no solutions on the market for patients who are not properly responding to the a gluten free diet (source). We want them not to live in fear that any meal could make them really sick and miserable - that would be a pretty good outcome, three times every day, all year long.
What do you feel differentiates your technology from competitors?
We have one main direct competitor developing a monoclonal antibody against the same target. We have a “best-in-class” approach in the sense that we believe our antibody has the potential to be much more efficacious than the competitor in vitro and in vivo. Because the competitor has shown dose-limiting efficacy in clinical trials, we expect superior clinical efficacy.
No two days are alike as a startup founder – how do you organize your day?
I am very keen to promptly answer emails, so the day always starts with the night’s harvest of messages from different time zones and that continues through the day. I usually have an organized schedule of meetings with staff, CROs, and so on. That usually takes at least half the day, and the rest is free to catch up on any activities. Because we are a small company where everyone wears multiple hats, that could range from calls with investors, administrative tasks (invoices, taxes), discussing a scientific or clinical protocol, and even sometime performing a lab experiment (last was measuring gluten content in cookies used for our clinical trial).
Do you like working from home? What’s your WFH setup?
I don’t particularly like working from home since I always enjoyed a healthy separation between my private and professional life, and WFH is obviously challenging that. I still regularly go to the office, since this is permitted in Switzerland; we can alternate with other colleagues, wear masks, and follow all other sanitary measures. On the other end, my wife enjoys working from home and therefore she has the nice setting with lots of light and a good view outside. I usually find a comfortable chair or even the kitchen table can do. From there, a laptop computer and headphones for privacy is probably the gear that everyone is using.
What startup leader do you admire most? Who has been a role model for you?
I think more in terms of ‘I want to do that’ than ‘I want to be that person’, so I have never really tried to emulate someone. But I do have the utmost respect for people who are able to make great professional achievements while giving a lot back to the community. I am certainly not there yet. In that respect, I admire Bill Gates even more for the work done at the Bill & Melinda Foundation than for bringing us Microsoft.
How do you read-in every day to know where the opportunities are, what your competitors are doing, where the next big idea might be?
Specialized news feed such as Fierce, BioCentury. Keep reading, whenever possible, scientific literature. Regularly look at competitor news, corporate presentations, SEC filings if those are publicly traded, and so on.
What do you wish you’d known in the early days of leading a startup that you think would be helpful for your fellow founders to know?
I wish I had a better understanding of what makes VCs tick. With them it’s so important to use the right communication style. Don’t adopt the “cautious scientist” stance. Dare to be bold and make bold promises – obviously with a sound scientific basis.
What scientist dead or alive would you like to have coffee with?
Charles Darwin, and I would prefer something stronger than coffee if given that chance. He represents for me a classical example of how science can deny obscurantism and was one of the first scientists to demonstrate the fragile equilibrium on a global scale between species - including humans. That is all the more relevant today when that equilibrium is endangered. And I certainly envy the explorer in him.
What advice would you have for new Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS residents on making the most of the time, opportunities, and mentorship at JLABS?
We find the JPAL program of mentorship extremely useful for positioning our work. There are also several aspects such as communications trainings, events around best practices for entrepreneurs, and more that are quite useful.
What are your tips for pitching to investors in the virtual era?
It is important to do a bit of research on your investors before engaging, and that was key before COVID, too. If you already have investors, they usually know each other pretty well and you should leverage that It is also important to try to minimize the impact of physical distancing by trying to maintain eye contact and be personal during video interactions (without overdoing it). But that won’t replace direct contact forever – hopefully the situation will get back to normal soon!