Why one industry veteran launched a new cancer immunotherapy company

By Samantha Black, PhD, ScienceBoard editor in chief

November 16, 2021 -- WASHINGTON, DC - Pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry veteran Raphaël Ognar has decided to try his hand as an entrepreneur and passionately pursue the development of NK cell-based therapeutics by launching NKILT Therapeutics. Ognar spoke with ScienceBoard onsite at the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer's (SITC) 2021 annual meeting.

Ognar is co-founder and CEO of NKILT Therapeutics, a stealth mode biotechnology company that launched ahead of the SITC meeting. The co-founders are industry scientists and experts with over 20 years of experience who are working to develop a new technology and platform based on NK cell therapy.

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NKILT's co-founders chose to work with NK cells specifically because they are good candidates for allogeneic technologies. Ognar noted that NKILT is not an academic spinoff -- the company is developing the technology and the platform independently. The technology will involve novel CAR-NK cells with a unique approach to killing cancer.

Ognar was not able to share additional details of the technology due to intellectual property conditions, but he said that NKILT will have more news to share with the public in the second quarter of 2022.

We believe we have an idea that is different, Ognar explained. He continued to say that entrepreneurs must believe in themselves and their ideas, "because if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will."

When asked about the challenges facing the industry, Ognar cited funding for early-stage companies. He also noted the importance of partnering not only with scientific experts but also investors, including those who might not give you the most money but who will support you throughout the company-building process. The importance of the team in startups is crucial, Ognar said, because success is never achieved alone, and entrepreneurs must realize that they will need help at some point in the journey.

"We do it for the science and for the cancer patients," Ognar said. "The journey is worth it. Working with people that are brilliant that are pushing boundaries is just a blessing every day."

There is a great deal of competition in the biopharmaceutical space right now, and many cancer immunotherapy approaches are being explored.

"Every time someone succeeds or fails in something, we all learn," Ognar continued. "And I think we can only succeed in beating cancer by competing against each other but also working together."

The industry will always need new companies to develop new therapies, according to Ognar. This is because new therapies will work for some types of cancer but not others, he said.

This was evidenced by research presented by Dr. Crystal Mackall during the Richard V. Smalley Memorial Award and Lectureship during the SITC meeting. Mackall demonstrated that CAR T-cell therapies can be used to treat specific solid tumors, a remarkable innovation. However, as Ognar notes, this therapy may not work for all solid tumors, which is why novel technologies are needed.

"There is room for everyone," he said.


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