BBV Founder Spotlight: Cameron Pye — Unnatural Products
The BBV Founder Spotlight is a series of posts highlighting founders from our portfolio companies and the incredible work they are pursuing to solve challenges in critical industries such as health and climate through technology innovation.
Thank you Cameron for taking the time.
Contributor Irfan Vissandjee
Tell us about your company. What defines your innovation?
Unnatural Products (UNP) is working to abolish the term “undruggable” by combining machine learning and parallel chemistry techniques. The undruggable space is essentially a cell permeability problem: we can engineer large molecules to bind any challenging target (ie antibodies) but large molecules aren’t cell-permeable and thus can’t access the vast majority of potential drug targets inside the cell. UNP’s platform solves this by engineering cell permeability into larger than usual molecules; unlocking a long sought after target class.
Where did your company’s name come from?
We’ve actually had a solution to undruggable targets for some time in the form of natural products, molecules that nature makes that we repurpose as therapeutics. The type of molecules we’re focused on at UNP are called macrocycles and we’ve been using a variety of natural product macrocycles as drugs for things like immunomodulation and antibiotics. UNP is borrowing a few tricks from nature but using chemical synthesis to expand the tool kit and design this macrocycle class, hence the name Unnatural Products.
What was the motivation behind starting your company?
My co-founder and I had been studying what makes these examples from nature tick during our PhDs at UC Santa Cruz. During that work we had a bit of a data revolution; we went from having only a handful of examples from nature and the scientific community to generating these datasets of hundreds and thousands of cell-permeable macrocycles. With this data in hand, we knew we were going to be able to build on those initial datasets and leverage machine learning to help us predict these properties in new, more targeted ways. Since the majority of our research was funded through collaborations with pharma companies we knew there would be a market for this. Starting UNP seemed like the logical next step on bringing our research to the world.
What role did the University play in the formation of your company or technology?
UCSC was a fantastic place to get our PhD’s, the school is really a goldilocks size: big enough to have best in class researchers and facilities, but small enough that there’s a tight-knit and collaborative community. As such we were able to get a wealth of mentorship from working on collaborative projects with multiple labs and disciplines which is really crucial for drug discovery where you sit at the intersection of chemistry and biology. Our PI Scott Lokey was incredibly supportive of us during our PhD work and continued to be supportive once we decided to forgo looking for postdocs and began booting up UNP. He had also started a company when we first joined the lab so my co-founder and I knew what that journey could look like.
How did you meet your co-founder? How long did it take?
I met my co-founder, Joshua Schwochert, during my PhD program, we both joined the Lokey lab but from two different programs. We became fast friends in and out of the lab and collaborated on almost everything we did. It’s tough to find a paper that one of us published that the other isn’t on as well. That collaborative spirit has carried through to our professional lives and Josh and I have been working together on this problem for the better part of a decade at this point. Josh is a brilliant scientist and great guy, he was also always better at finishing projects and I was good at starting them. That has evolved into our roles at the company whereas CEO I focus on the direction, BD, and financing and Josh keeps the crank turning and the science innovative and robust. It’s hard for me to imagine starting UNP without him, I’m glad we both chose Scott’s lab at UCSC many moons ago!
How is the firm different today than when you first started?
Well we first incorporated the company we were still in grad school so we’ve come quite a long way since then. The business model evolved a lot in the early days but the core technologies and innovation that we originally imagined and have since developed largely remained the same. We moved out of the garage and now are in custom wet-lab + office space we’ve built out in Santa Cruz and have a team of ~15 incredibly talented and dedicated scientists and engineers working on a variety of internal and external programs and the ever-evolving platform.
How has the fundraising process been for the company?
The fundraising process is never done but we’ve been lucky enough to find some supportive and value add partners to bring to the team. I think we took a fairly normal progression from early angel capital to some early-stage VC pre-seed checks, and then a healthy seed round led by Artis ventures at the end of 2019. Raising early-stage capital is never easy and I think learning how to tell our nuanced and technical value proposition in a compelling way is an ongoing process that I continue to polish. Given our internal progress and market traction we’re seeing now I’m bullish on the next raise.
What aspects of BBV’s coaching and support was the most helpful?
I think early advising on the business model while we were at CITRIS Foundry and then helping us navigate our seed round raise. BBV was our first institutional check, and their network allowed us to find our lead for both our pre-seed & seed round, they were the catalyst for UNP’s fundraising. BBV’s ability to truly understand our technology and value proposition and their help in refining our story and business model was invaluable for UNP’s fundraising and business success to date. The fact that I consider the partners my close friends is icing on the cake.
What’s ahead for your company in 2021?
The last year we’ve been focused on building the team, translating early proof of concept work into genuine assets, and getting some early partners. Next year is going to involve continued BD efforts, pipeline breadth and depth, and continued development of new platform capabilities and scale.
What lasting impact do you want to leave with your company?
I think the goal of any drug discovery or development company should be to leave a meaningful improvement to human health and we’re no different. This year has really reminded us how fragile the human condition is, but it also has shown us how incredibly quickly innovative biotechs and the greater healthcare community can move to address new challenges. At UNP we want to write the next chapter of drug discovery and provide better outcomes for patients by accessing biology we’ve never been able to reach.
Describe your firm’s culture in 5 words or less.
Passionate, inclusive, brilliant, and a good sense of humor.