Building a Best-in-Class Company for a Best-in-Class Therapy: LENZ Therapeutics CEO Eef Schimmelpennink

PODCAST EPISODE 290

Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.


If it hasn’t happened yet, just wait. The day will come when you’ll have to use a larger font on the computer or hold the phone farther away to read a message. That frustrating condition, presbyopia, is a $3 billion to $5 billion market with limited non-surgical treatment options. LENZ Therapeutics is one company on a path to change that.

In this podcast, LENZ president and CEO Eef Schimmelpennink speaks with host Ehsan Sadri, MD, about the progress of the company’s lead program, aceclidine. The drop is designed to restore loss of near vision without triggering the ciliary muscles, and it produced promising Phase II data.

As the company moves toward Phase III clinical trials, fresh off emerging from stealth mode with a $47 million Series A financing from Versant Ventures and RA Capital Management, Schimmelpennink reveals his larger picture for LENZ – without reaching for the reading glasses.

Listen to the podcast to discover:
• Schimmelpennink’s views on the influence on compounding pharmacies for presbyopia treatments.
• The impact of Allergan’s miotics on this space.
• The potential benefits of these treatments for optometrists and ophthalmologists.
• What attracted Schimmelpennink to Presbyopia Therapies (now LENZ Therapeutics).
• What’s next for LENZ in the presbyopia market and beyond.

Transcript:

Ehsan Sadri: Hi, everybody, this is Ehsan Sadri. I’m a Board-Certified Ophthalmologist, Practicing Ophthalmologist and Co-Founder of Visionary Venture Fund here in Newport Beach, California. Delighted to bring our next guest, Mr. Eef Schimmelpennink, who’s a Dutch, Netherland’s friend of ours, who’s joining us, not far from me, San Diego, and he’s got a really just amazing background, relatively newer to ophthalmology. But you know, I would I don’t want to steal this thunder. I’m just absolutely delighted to have him on our OIS Podcast, how you doing, Eef?

Eef Schimmelpennink: Doing very well. Thank you, Ehsan, thank you for the very kind introduction and invitation to join you on your podcast.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, we’re excited that, you know, the renaissance of ophthalmology is continuing, and we’re super excited about the work you’re doing in this space. And you know, I see patients every day and it’s just really nice to be able to have offering options to all sorts of patients and you’ve been so close. I have to invite you to come out to Newport. Have a drink? Yeah, hopefully, hopefully soon. open invitation. So yeah, so Eef, you know, for these oils, podcasts, some people may not know you. So really want to talk about the background a little bit as far as you know, your career and your background, you know, growing up in Netherlands, and you know, most recently 12 years ago, immigrated, the United States and the family. So tell us about yourself a little bit.

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, and I’ll try to keep it brief. But like I said, Dutch national I still am but study partly in Australia. So that’s my international adventures started works across the globe, you know, for pick it up. I’m bioprocess engineer by background. So real biotech guy always worked in pharma from a biotech lead the injectable business for Hospira out of I was we were actually living in England at that time. So that was Eastern Europe, Europe itself and North Africa, then move to that was what brought us to the US to lead that business globally. So we ended up being in Chicago, with the acquisition of Hospira. By Pfizer, I was asked to lead the integration of a spirit and to Pfizer for the injectable business. So that was a great experience, which led to my first CEO job, which was leading a biotech company called Alvotech. That was about 300 people. So when I came in, I just actually got the valuation set at about 2.7 billion. So from there, I went to Pfenex, which had brought us to San Diego, biotech oncology, osteoporosis company turned them around about three or four years, that was our first publicly listed company was looking to sell that, but we got the knock on the door by like a little over a year ago. Now we sold that business for over half a billion. So that was the background. That’s what led me to then join LENZ what we now have renamed to LENZ Therapeutics. earlier in the year, I was looking for a venture backed asset that I could you know from ground zero, pretty much build a company around rather than coming in and turning something around for the first two years, I figured let’s just skip those first two years, and come into something that I feel is a very promising asset, we can really build a what we feel best in class company around.

Ehsan Sadri: Tremendous! It’s a tremendous background, congratulations on the success you’ve had, you know, as you know, ophthalmology is that what I call bigs, but small space, everyone kind of knows everybody, and has this sort of way to keep you from moving out of the field. It’s a very family-oriented business, I say, no matter what happens, a lot of my friends, they go they like, you know what, there’s nothing like eyes and easily start coming back. Those are the relationships I think mostly. So it’s exciting. You know, for us, as often as practicing ophthalmologist, it’s just nice to have therapeutic options that I’m really excited about the space here. And because I think it’s massive, very unreserved, obviously, tell us about your unique approach. I know you just renamed the company I saw press release a few weeks ago here locally. So congratulations on doing that. That’s I already tell me you’re a smart CEO. Tell us about this ophthalmology difference about what you feel versus other ventures you ran. But also tell us about what’s unique about your molecule.

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, no, great. So two questions in there. And how ophthalmology is different from some of the other areas that I’ve been in. It’s different, and at the same time, just saying, you know, ultimately, we all care about patients and how can we help them, and I think that’s a unique opportunity that we have here. And that at the same time is the difference, you know, when I was working in oncology, luckily, you know, usually those patient populations are smaller than the ones that were in that it also means that you know, even from a day-to-day practice, it’s very significant, but a little bit, you know, further out and much longer to approach or to trade off to trade against you. One of the things which I think is unique to ophthalmology is that you actually get to try products early on, so it’s on the way to the clinic do so see results is shorter. And that I think is a great bridge to what you set out what’s unique in our products. You know, when I was approached to look at this company, obviously that my diligence and very early on very quickly, I realized that it’s a unique opportunity for a product that has a highly successful Phase 2 data that can really benefit from, you know, the next step in the company evolution. So it’s a product that as you said, and for those listening, Our asset is positioned to treat presbyopia, it’s aceclidine-based eyedrop, the only eyedrop that’s based on aceclidine, and like the other myopic out there, it’s on the one hand focusing on creating a pinhole effect, which increases depth of field. And with that allows people to restore or allows for restoration of near vision, I think what makes it unique is that not only from what the data is showing us, it’s potentially the best product out there that can create that pinhole, it does so and that’s crucial without triggering the ciliary muscle. So it has great potential to trigger the RC without triggering the ciliary muscle, and it’s the serum muscle that that is associated with the side effects, I’m sure we’ll go into that a little bit more detail. That’s what creates some something epic shifts is also that shift that’s associated with the headaches and other side effects. So we feel that we have a product that again, is potentially best in class at creating the pill effect without triggering any of the associated side effects. So that’s what got me really enthusiastic.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, I mean, it’s really, in my opinion, probably one next, one of the most exciting things to hit ophthalmology. You know, and I think there’s plenty of business for everybody. It’s interesting, your MO is different, which I really, actually appreciate as an ophthalmologist, which is just intriguing. So are you starting in Phase 3 now? Are you because after the endpoints are you what do you have fresh funding? Let’s talk about that. And then let’s talk about your clinical sort of regulatory pathway.

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, the pathway indeed, logically will include a Phase 3 study, we’ve not publicly indicated what the timelines for that are. But clearly, you know, one of the things that I immediately did coming in is looking at how can we sharpen our pencil, the execution. And I think we’ve been very successful at bringing timelines in. So I would imagine that over the next couple of quarters, will start to provide more insight in what we feel our program will look like. And you hinted at the or pointed at the series a funding, one of the things that convinced me to come in, aside from the fact that it’s a best-in-class drug is that the syndicate that is around the company is like the top names out of pharma. So adverse end and ra capital, we’ve got some really strong VC backing, we’ve announced the 47 million Series A, which clearly is setting us up for success around the clinic and then moving the products into FDA approval.

Ehsan Sadri: Very good. That’s really good. I mean, your audience may or may not know, but you know, we’re talking about a massive multi-billion patient global market with us estimate to be minute minimum 120-130 million individuals that are suffering from presbyopia most of these patients is interesting. They, you know, that they’ve had excellent vision. And just recently, they lose their vision, myself included, mostly Ms. Avec, right. You know, and I have a five-year-old night I read and she’s always making fun of me that because I have to bring my iPhone on her little books, and it’s getting worse. And, you know, it’s actually pretty humbling and I don’t know, like about you on a personal level, but you know, having treated and reverse the presbyopic of at least one refractive and non-refractive lens implants, I’ve always been so frustrated and not having my amateur oscuro presbyopic, or even high programming chops to really give them anything really, I never got into Cornell and lays so I’m so excited about this technology just because I feel it and you know, you feel mortal, you feel that you feel the father time really taking you down, you know, and it’s like, and when you write I mean, you’ve been great till now I’m an athlete, and now I’m like, wait a minute, what’s going on? And I’m trained, I can’t imagine what my patient goes through. So tell me about your pathway now. You know, you’ve got the funding. You see what’s always liked to know what’s, where are we going? Where are you in five years? Are you a publicly traded company? You know, obviously blue sky thinking right? You’re not gonna is gonna hold you to it, but are you doing? Are you going on layer and other disease states? Or are you thinking you know, this is great, this is going to merge with somebody who already has commercialization, and we might go to something else. What are your thoughts on that?

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, and I mix up, it’s a phenomenal question how I look at what we have now is a perfect foundation to do many more things. So you are clearly, my background is lends itself and with the team that we’re bringing on, to treat this as a phenomenal leader. So then let’s not forget what you said, Indeed, that US alone, this is on an $120 or $130 million, or people market, which translate into a 3, 4, 5-billion-dollar market. So that’s a significant opportunity. I don’t necessarily like the Holy Grail. But that’s how it’s looked at, you know, one of the few major pharma pharmacological markets that can still be penetrated. So, after four months or so, I feel that we’ve captured that foundation that we’ve set up plans. Well, it’s, you know, it will come down to a lot of you know, very close execution. And I’m very confident with the team there. So absolutely, we’re looking at Okay, with that in place, how do we expand? As, you know, almost like three different strategies that you can look at in parallel. So we’re not going to choose one over the other, you know, what is it that we can do more with a aceclidine? And we’ve got some great ideas around, how can we either level expand or use it in in different indications, that’s something that we’re definitely doing. We’re very pleased that the previous management that the previous brains of a company are continuing to be involved. So there’s a lot of knowledge that we’re using and can build off of. So that’s one, what is it that we can do more with ACECLIDINE, but definitely also looking at adjacent spaces, what else is out there that makes sense, either from a channel strategy, or from a knowledge-based strategy, in talking to people in the industry is a lot of you know, uncovered ground sales and a lot of opportunities there. I think thirdly, logically, like I said, there’s a lot of companies out there may have products that can benefit from scale, synergy or leadership. So those are the other things that we’re looking at. So that’s how I see the company five years from now, definitely broader, larger portfolio that we have now, what that means that we go public, so now, I always look at them, you know, the most efficient way to bring cash in and if that happens to be through an IPO, we’ll definitely look at it. But there might be different ways of doing as well.

Ehsan Sadri: I think it’s fascinating when we’re talking about this whole notion of the marketplace. And when we look at, like, for example, presbyopia versus progressive myopia, both of them are pretty landmark, you know, large markets that really have been untapped. And I grew up, especially because of the fact that there’s, you know, there’s people who are actively working, and this is a big problem, they would like to have a non-surgical solution. What I liked about what you’ve done, is your data, your data, and the Phase 2 was pretty remarkable. And up to seven hours, you know, what, that’s the first question people ask me is like, Okay, how long does this stuff last or gonna last, and we never give an exact number, but we have a range. And then, you know, I love about what you’ve done is, you know, you got, you know, 81% of the nation has gained at least two lines in 30 minutes, which is remarkable data, and then the tax even tacky flexes, you know, that’s other things like, does this stuff wear off? Does it cause headaches, you know, this, it’s been, that’s been the big plague about, you know, the traditional pilocarpine-based products in the past. And so this is, I’m actually personally going to be very interested in seeing your Phase 3, come out. So, you know, I know you’re keeping, it’s hard to know, and you probably don’t want to publicly say anything. So, I mean, if you were to venture if you were to say, like Lauer, you know three years from now, we’re publicly traded already. What are some things that interest you? Are you thinking about maybe? Are you interested in dry eyes? Are you thinking about myopia? What do you what do you foresee? I know, it’s foreshadowing, and I know, you’re not going to tell me exactly. But tell me what you can. And are you interested in?

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, and I think you’re spot on to, you know, by all means, ask. But there’s, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. And you’ve already indicated that we’re not going to pin ourselves down to for several reasons. Now to say it’s a BOC. I think the good thing is that there’s a lot out there that you know, people in general out there are waiting for so ton of opportunity along the three lines that I’ve mentioned, that, you know, gets us very enthusiastic. It’s also endearing, maybe, you know, piggybacking off of what you said and Celeron around the data. That’s something that when I stopped to look into this opportunity, and yes, I’m like squarely in there, multiple readers on my desk, hopefully I can start a ditch soon. And it’s one of those things that I was perfect. I never even been to an optometrist. And a friend of mine told me just you know, you’ll get there, and you’ll wake up one morning and the phone is just your arms are no longer live. And it happened to me like it will happen to all of us. So that’s what the market is like. When I was doing my diligence and looking at that Phase 2 data that realizing that, you know, two lines of game means that, you know, the majority of the people, almost all an arm study can actually, you know, read the back of a sugar pack. And again, you know, that’s the definitely they can, you know, they will get back to newspaper print. I think that’s what we’re trying to put into perspective what these lines mean, you know, what is two line? What is three lines, the FDA is asking for three lines, which is great, it’s a very high bar. And, you know, we’ve shown that after 30 minutes, which was our first point of time that we measured, over 50% of patients gain three lines. And we were able to do this in a very well, placebo-controlled way. So very clean data show in the heart of the people gain three lines, we went out to seven hours, seven hours was our last data point. Yeah, we’ll definitely go longer in our upcoming studies, after seven hours of a half the people still have two lines of game, you know, over a quarter of the of the people three lines. So that’s very significant, without any loss of distance vision, I think that’s another one that you and honest rightfully so very focused on what was showing, and this plays into the fact that we don’t trigger the ciliary muscle is that there’s no loss in distance vision, there’s actually a trend towards gain both in normal life as well as dark conditions. So I think that’s very telling, because you know, that that’s what we see with the other drugs that even if you lose one day up to, he would say, what are they up to? Well, one day up there, I’m preaching the choir here is the difference between perfect vision and no longer see what I’m after. But it’s the driver’s license test. So that’s how significant that one day up there is. And that’s great independent research that we’ve shared, that clearly shows how recycling is different from high low and carbon coal, and how indeed, that independence between triggering or the mode of action is very clear. And very well, Ehsan.

Ehsan Sadri: Let’s pivot on the commercialization. You’re commercializing this product, what do you worry about this compounding formularies or compounding pharmacies taking substrates and doing similar work? Obviously, not going to IP unless been some of the challenges, at least in myopia, progressive myopia. This is a big sort of space. But there’s some players that are actually, you know, compounding these formulas. And so do you feel that presbyopia is a little different because it’s hard to manage the loss of diopter and diopter and a half of acuity for distance and manipulating the ciliary body? So harder science to duplicate? Or do you think that there’s enough room for it?

Eef Schimmelpennink: I think, let me start off by saying that, again, what’s different with aceclidine into some of the other components is that we actually have a very large IP portfolio. So this is a new chemical entity for the US. So we have that protection to for at least, you know, a very significant couple of decades out. Very large portfolio of patents, both in the US as well as actuary. So we’re talking into the dozens there. So there’s not going to be any compounding any generalization of a cycle then for the foreseeable future, which is different compared to a polycarbonate. Even in today’s world, you see, we have a point to a point for one and a quarter and a 2%. Planet carbon that people are developing all in an effort to try to mitigate the unfavorable mode of action that Coppin has. So I’m not concerned about any compounding being done on a cycle. And I think in general, for this class of drugs, compared to some of the others, you’ll probably see a little bit less, I think, many of us are aiming to get to a unit dose formulation. So this is going to be more in the self-pay type of space anyway. So I think from a distribution point of view, but different.

Ehsan Sadri: So how does it look on the patients? Do you feel like, I know it’s early, but are the patients going to be seeing the optometrist for this or ophthalmologists? Both? Maybe primary care? I know, cash base is going to be the I think the way to go, I think 100% We agreed but you feel like potentially Allergan, we’ll have they’re saying end of this year, beginning of next year, the first meiotic if you will try to hit the mark US market. Have you know, there have traditionally been seen as the strongest overall family history of his legacy, when it comes to marketing and everything so that I think that’s only going to serve everybody, but you feel like the you know, when you’re looking at it, who’s the patient see, are they seeing the optometrist or are they seeing an ophthalmologist.

Eef Schimmelpennink: I think both and yeah, you’re right. That to me, it’s great to have like an app V out there. Creating this that’s mark, I think that that product is going to be good enough to create the inside with the marketing and commercial muscle that they that they have. Look, we’re all gonna hopefully benefit from that. So I’m very pleased to have colleagues like that out there from a channel perspective, this event itself Bay, you would still need a script and you get the script either from your optometrist or ophthalmologist. So that’s the channel that we currently look at. You know, we are obviously and, again, we’re not going to go into too much detail there at the moment but thinking through and I think we got a good handle on what strategies are to make sure that those groups are favorable to products like this. Yeah. How can this be used to get more people again, like myself, that would normally not go to an optometrist? Can you make the optometrist benefit from getting people across your doorstep? So think there’s a clear Win. And we’ve done some, some very good diligence already and have some really good groups that are advising us on how to position it.

Ehsan Sadri: Very good. So you know, let’s pivot on you a little bit. As far as your background, you know, I always like to talk about the leadership and some of the challenges you’ve gone through. It seems like you know, you’ve had a really nice success after success, but I’m sure you’ve had a lot of heartache on the on the way, do you mind sharing a little bit about who our young entrepreneurs were, you know, thinking about venture, thinking about startup, thinking about a career paths that you’ve taken? What are some pearls you would give them for success?

Eef Schimmelpennink: So if you believe in something, go for it. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. It’s not rocket science, it’s not always going to go well, it’s definitely going to be plenty of moments where life is gonna be a little bit rocky, but make sure that you get the right people around you. And one of the things that attracted me and taking this one is that it allows me to actually bring some of my old team members friends now into the company. Make it fun. Yeah, it’s gonna be its hard work, but get the right people around you believe in what you do and just get keep hammering out at it.

Ehsan Sadri: Yeah, it’s very good. Yeah, I mean, even you’re absolutely right, because the road has a lot of ups and downs. And it’s always not gonna be perfect. But at least you tried. And that’s really regret is a lot heavier than not. So I got that’s really a good.

Eef Schimmelpennink: I’ve been very lucky in my career that I’ve been with big companies all the way up to Pfizer, small companies, or a handful of people now a little bit more than handful of people. And everything in between, pick the learnings good and bad from all of it, and apply them to what now you’re doing that’s one of the things you know, one of the downsides of getting older is that you’ve got presbyopia, one of the upsides of it is that you can you obviously start to build a little bit of a nice backpack of experiences that you can rely on.

Ehsan Sadri: Absolutely. You know, as we segue, and you know, we could talk for a long time, but I just want to make sure we covered everything, we try to keep things on people’s drives to work so they can listen to this podcast and other things that you’re excited about outside of what you’re doing that really think has a future you feel like patient share billing, like direct to consumer, presbyopia is the way to go. What do you feel like, you know, this is just a traditional brick and mortar goes to your optometrist? You know, with digital loaded question, digital health is going to change everything. What we’re seeing now, is patients are not necessarily having to come in, they can just do it. One of these Telecalls intelligence, you know, telemedicine, and really diagnostics is exploding, be able to like basically, basically diagnose, refract, do what we call scatter perimetry without having the patient come back in. I feel like this is just going to be the tip of iceberg after loop presbyopia, and digital health. It’s just that it’s a perfect storm, and it is a perfect opportunity. I think it’s gonna be great. What are your thoughts?

Eef Schimmelpennink: No, I couldn’t agree more. And we’ve started to see it happen. Maybe the first science but that would have been like a decade or so ago. And really sad to pick up I would say maybe five, four or five years ago, I actually personally got involved with a couple of companies that are really moving into the telehealth environment. COVID brought us a lot of bad things. But also a lot of it basically sped up a lot of that and we’re all so much more comfortable with telehealth with different ways to interact with patients. So patients have different experiences and different feel more comfortable going into different routes. So I think, for all of us independent, whether it’s ophthalmology or all the other fields, there’s a need and everybody that’s, you know, danger is probably thinking about what does that mean for me where I’m a single practice optometrist or you know, companies like ourselves, anything in that mix? How do you position yourself well, to benefit and ultimately provide a bigger benefit to your patient because that’s what it’s all about in the end?

Ehsan Sadri: I love it. So with that said, it’s just been absolutely great pleasure for us to have you today. And I look forward to hopefully Las Vegas with the CEO.

Eef Schimmelpennink: Yeah, we can try one of your Bourbons. I was very intrigued by that clip that was on your website. Talking about outside interests?

Ehsan Sadri: For sure.

Eef Schimmelpennink: All right, good. Thanks, Ehsan.

Ehsan Sadri: Pleasure! Thank you.

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