Passionate Pursuits With Kiora Pharmaceuticals Brian Strem

PODCAST EPISODE 312

Click here to watch the video version of this podcast.

Brian Strem, president and CEO of Kiora Pharmaceuticals, didn’t plan to become an executive, or even an entrepreneur, when he started doing translational research for publicly traded biotech company Cytori Therapeutics. But as his career progressed from the bench to business development to leading Bayon Therapeutics (acquired by EyeGate, which changed its name to Kiora in November) and Okogen, he found himself following in his father’s footsteps. During his childhood, Strem watched his first mentor grow a textile business from the family garage to an industry leader.

Inspired by his father’s passionate pursuit, Strem has overseen the development of Kiora’s three-product pipeline. Kiora recently shared topline results on KIO-101, a small-molecule candidate that demonstrated promising early-stage results in reducing ocular surface inflammation in patients with conjunctival hyperemia. The results give Kiora the data needed to move into Phase II studies.

KIO-201, the company’s legacy product, is a chemically modified form of hyaluronic acid that’s moved through later-stage trials. Strem says the drop significantly accelerates the rate of wound healing compared to today’s standard of care.

Listen to the podcast, hosted by Paul Karpecki, OD, FAAO, for the full story. You’ll hear:
• More about Strem’s journey from the bench to business and from bioengineering to ophthalmology.
• A deep dive into Kiora’s three programs and how they target unmet needs in eye care.
• The story behind the rebrand from EyeGate to Kiora Pharmaceuticals. What’s in a name?

Click “play” to listen now.

Transcript:

Paul Karpecki: Thank you. And welcome to the OIS Podcast. I’m Dr. Paul Karpecki. I practice in Lexington, Kentucky. And I’m honored today to get to speak to Brian Strem. Brian has an incredible history in terms of his role and background, what he’s been able to achieve, and now as CEO of Kiora. And for those who aren’t familiar with that company, we’ll talk a little bit about what that name is and what that means and why the name change. But I’m really excited to have you here, Brian, thanks for making time in your busy schedule.

 

Brian Strem: Paul, thanks for having me. Pleasure to catch up.

 

Paul Karpecki: So let me start right from the very beginning. Because this weekend and an introduction to all those in attendance, we have a great group of attendees, when it comes to these podcasts, they range from, obviously practitioners in ophthalmology, Optometry, but also industry, strategics, etc. So it’s a wonderful environment. And I always get a lot of great comments on these interviews where we get into kind of something new area, but also getting to know the person. So I’m going to start with that. Let’s begin by having you walk through your personal background, you know, for the audience, let them know where you were, did you grow up? Or were there early, some entrepreneurial influences early in your life that drew you into what you’re doing today? Because you have an incredible amount of energy and passion? And is that always there? What drew you into this kind of field and level of what you’re doing today?

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, happy to. So I’m actually one of those few kids born and raised in Southern California, from Agoura Hills, if you will, and spent my whole upbringing pretty much in, in that great weather location. From an early influence perspective, actually, I’d probably say on the entrepreneurial side, my father was probably one of the biggest, he in his mid-20s started a textile decorating company in our garage, I was probably about a year old at the time. And he grew that into a proper US based industry leading textile company, had hundreds of employees. And really, you know, just did a fabulous job of growing something and getting passionate about a pursuit, if you will.

 

Paul Karpecki: That’s great. And influence of that level is really pretty amazing. I say, we were such absorbers as children, we just are like sponges and to see that happening. And I love the stories where they begin in a garage and see success. And you’re gonna pick those things up automatically. And obviously, you’re taking at some high levels to. Where did you go to school and did you already kind of go into that, or was it a different background, as in your case that you studied before, you know, going into this level that includes also the management side of things?

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, so throughout high school, I was always very keen on the math’s and sciences courses that I was taking. So it turned out my senior year, I was getting recruited to go to Cornell University for the obscure sport of pole vaulting. And they had a great bioengineering program. And that was something that I jumped straight into and saw as a really good, really emerging, emerging field that that that really got me excited and passionate. So it’s been four years and in the lovely weather of Ithaca, New York, which was certainly a bit of a culture shock for me, but, but really loved what I was studying what I was doing. And then, as a lot of, you know, juniors and seniors in college, think about, well, what’s next. And I just thought to myself, I don’t really know. But I certainly enjoy learning more about these topics and how I can apply them potentially, I decided it was time to go to grad school, and of all places to go wanted to go back home where it was nice and warm and sunny year-round at UCLA. So jump straight into a graduate program there spent quite a bit of time obviously doing the coursework and a really exciting research thesis around stem cell populations from adipose tissue that could be used for autologous use, so loved, loved my time in schooling, but then move pretty quickly over to the industry side. And really started thinking about how can we take these discoveries that academic labs are often coming up with, and really translating them to helping patients with unmet medical needs.

 

Paul Karpecki: So what did you do coming right out of that you started with one company was a small company was a large company. It was biotech. I imagine given that kind of background, but you know, and in Southern California nicely, which had a lot of that kind of opportunity. And then how long did you kind of stay there? What was your path to eventually getting to a cure?

 

Brian Strem: Yes, my PhD thesis mentor was a plastic surgeon named Mark Hedrick and Mark ended up spinning out a company from UCLA that I went and joined directly and then we ended up getting acquired by a larger San Diego based medical device company. So I essentially rolled straight into that newly she was admitted, publicly traded biotech company where I was on the bench doing a lot of translational research.

 

Paul Karpecki: Did you enjoy that? Was it a neat experience? It’s a different role. Yeah, I bet it is. You’re right at that fundamental level, you’re right connected with it. How long did you do that for?

 

Brian Strem: I was there about a decade, I think just touching under a decade and actually went through a few different roles in the organization being a small company, as everyone here knows, you have to wear a fair amount of hats. And so we actually even had some commercialized products. And the company asked me to go out there and start meeting with plastic and reconstructive surgeons and selling some of these products. So taking someone who’s so used to being on the bench, doing research, to getting some commercial, you know, bad caring experience, and then even coming back in house and setting up collaborations with groups like BARDA in terms of how we can think about developing, again, these various therapeutics for areas that that we know need to be filled.

 

Paul Karpecki: So tough transition to go from bench work, which is at the fundamental level of it to carrying a bag or was it just another exciting learning opportunity for you?

 

Brian Strem: I’d say both. Oftentimes, you want to just dive right into the science, and that goes right over the customer’s head. So certainly being able to interact more with the physician segments that are going to be using your products and in a way that they can understand it versus the one that you tend to spend most of your time thinking about. Was a great learning opportunity.

 

Paul Karpecki: Make sense. And then how did eye care come about? Is it just with this opportunity here? Was it leading to that through other avenues?

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, no, it was actually through other avenues. So after, again, about a decade at this company, Cytori, Shire decided that they wanted to get into the regenerative medicine space. And so I came in and became their first business development person there being that I’ve been living in that regenerative medicine world for about a decade, and started helping build what would be a strategy that we could pursue under the leadership of Angus Russell, who was the CEO at the time, about a year into my time there, Angus actually transitioned out and Fleming on SCAF came in. And it was pretty clear that Fleming didn’t really love regenerative medicine, but certainly wanted to get back into ophthalmology, where he had a lot of personal experience running previous companies. So at that point, I saw the writing on the wall that, you know, I probably was going to be unemployed pretty quickly unless I was able to adapt and transition. And so went up to, to my superiors in the Business Development Group, and basically became the first BD person for Shire in ophthalmology, where with a multidisciplinary team that we put together, were able to come up with the first strategy that Shire was started to implement upon in terms of how can we become a new entrant into the ophthalmic space.

 

Paul Karpecki: That is really neat. So that was right there with the eye and into the category of ophthalmology, the ophthalmic spaces you said, and, you know, what did you think of that change? Was it was it a dramatic change for eye care? Would it seem fairly seamless, was it easy transition?

 

Brian Strem: You know, I would say a lot of my previous work was in cardiovascular disease, and a lot of other organ systems never in the eye, I knew where the cornea was in the retina more, but that was probably about it. So it was definitely back to the Bio 101 books to brush up, if you will, on the ophthalmic biology and pathologies, and really where the unmet need was. And that’s where the team that we were able to put together at Shire was just so great because there were such a plethora of backgrounds, that we could tap into everyone’s experiences and knowledge and really come up with what we thought was an industry leading strategy.

 

Paul Karpecki: And it certainly was, and congratulations on the execution of that from the BD level, you know, and the development of a product that you acquired, but then carried it through to the final phase, all the way through to then obviously Novartis, you know, acquisition of the company, but you had a great team, and that really began there in that in that area that you were in and leading for the eye care space. So congratulations. And so then, obviously, you know, that transition happened, and the company went to Novartis. At that point, you kind of went back to that sort of other work. Did you have a transition group, you’re on some boards, what led now to the final stage of becoming the CEO and director of this pharmaceutical company, Kiora.

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, so there were certainly a few more stepping stones in between. So when Shire got acquired by Takeda and obviously the asset that their primary acid cider went over to Novartis. Prior to that happening though, the team was shutting down at San Diego, the offices for Shire and they wanted me to relocate to Boston and nothing against all my colleagues in Massachusetts but decided that it really wasn’t in the cards for me personally at that point in time. So ended up going up to Allergan where now I’m going from essentially a blossoming ophthalmology business to really the 800-pound gorilla. And that was also a great experience met a ton of fabulous individuals who really knew the Eye space inside and out and was a business development professional there, working on a very small team, where we were trying to essentially assess every technology out there and figure out how we can continue to build our portfolio, in addition to even out licensing some assets or partnering around others. So spent a few years there unfortunately, that was during the time that what was known as Valiant at the time. And then now, Bausch Health launched a hostile bid for us. And so it was certainly not business as usual as much as we hoped it was. And when we eventually were acquired by Actavis, I ended up taking a severance package and thinking I was going to take a nice summer off and enjoy the beach down here in San Diego where I live. But a colleague of mine came to me about a week and a half later over a cup of coffee with an asset that I found incredibly interesting for the potential treatment of adenoviral conjunctivitis. And so the next thing you know, I’m starting a company and ended up raising a Series A round and taking that asset through a Phase 2 trial, that read out with some really positive exciting results there. In parallel, we were meeting with one of our KOLs gentlemen up at University of Washington named Russell N. Van Gelder, who’s the chairman of Ophthalmology there, and casually talking about some of the other work that he was working on. And he told us about a collaboration with Rich Kramer at Cal Berkeley with regard to the small molecule photoswitches, and we got really interested in that and ended up taking a license to that whole platform, which then became a second company called Bayon Therapeutics. And then, about six months ago, the one of the board members of Eyegate Pharma at the time, reached out, seeing if I’d be interested at all in, in coming into a public company and taking the helm there. And really thinking about how we can essentially regroup and refocus a company that’s been around for quite some time. But really has some exciting platforms to think about developing moving forward. And so with the acquisition of Bayon and me being appointed as CEO, that’s where I started out at Kiora Pharmaceuticals, which is the new brand to what previously was known as Eyegate.

 

Paul Karpecki: So great, great story all the way through. And a lot of interesting touch points, I always find it fascinating. I’ve been lucky to get to do some of these interviews, how the path people take and what they pick up each time and how they use that and build on it. And with your background being kind of very unique all the way from bench work and all that you could build in a very different direction. It’s obvious you’ve been able to achieve that. And it’s good to have someone like you at the leadership position for a company like this in that regard. And so in your, How long have you been now CEO at Kiora?

 

Brian Strem: I believe it’s been a touch under five months now. So it’s still certainly a learning experience every day. But you know, the best thing is we have a great team, we have some really promising assets, and we’re able to advance those programs forward. So I’m really excited to see where this company goes in the coming six months, 12 months, 18 months.

 

Paul Karpecki: Yeah, what was most inspiring for you to take on this role as CEO of this company, and then a little bit why we will even touch on the name change if you’re okay with that have brought that on. I like the name, but I’ll always like delving into what how that happened. But first of all, you know, what inspired you to say, okay, yeah, I’ve had this great path, I’ve got another need asset license, you took it through Phase 2. And now stepping into this, this role, which of the products either that you had, or that you’re looking at made this seem like an enticing opportunity?

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, so I think, you know, coming into this, as you’re running private companies, and the opportunity to go into public company land was something of a lot of interest to me. And a way to be able to capitalize the organization without necessarily the you know, quote and quote, hat in hand, going to the VCs, looking for your proper series, a series B Series C rounds, and then eventually coming up either in the public markets or exiting through M&A. The idea to take a public company with what already had two really good and promising assets. And then adding a third to it was really exciting. And that that really was the I would say the impetus to drive me into saying yes to the opportunity, in addition to obviously a great team that that I got to know much closer over the past five months. And so now we really are a proper spec pharma company, if you will, or spec biotech in the ophthalmic space. We’re able to refocus and really restrategize all of our programs, which I know in the past were a little bit more fragmented at some level into a way that we think makes a lot of commercial sense. And that will continue to get near term inflection points and drive value to the company.

 

Paul Karpecki: Tell me about the current products that you have in your portfolio and what the potential is for them.

 

Brian Strem: Yeah, so we have rebranded the products as well as our rebranding of the overall company. So we now are really advancing three main programs. The first one is I’m going to start with the Legacy product, and that was what we refer to as KIO-201. This is a chemically modified crosslinked hyaluronic acid that we’ve already taken through some late-stage trials. And essentially, surgical recovery following PRK laser vision correction, where we show that this eyedrops actually significantly accelerates the rate of wound healing, compared to today’s current standard of care being bandage contact lenses. So the idea of an eye drop that can actually help patients recover from this type of surgery further, as well as potentially expanding that into a broader market of corneal abrasions is something that I see as a huge unmet need, and how can we get these patients back feeling better seeing clear earlier following these types of wounds on the ocular surface. The second asset was actually through an acquisition that the company did in December of 20, of a Vienna based biotechnology company called Panoptes Pharma, whereby we have a or they had a third generation, small molecule DHODH inhibitor. And in ophthalmology, we do a really good job of taking biology that’s been figured out somewhere else and applying it to the eye in certain conditions of the eye that we think there’s a lot of potential merit to develop assets in even though they are different formulations typically. And knowing that Sanofi had a very has a very successful franchise in the DHODH inhibition space for autoimmune diseases like RA and MS, we saw an opportunity to leverage that underlying mechanism of action in the ocular surface diseases of things like ocular inflammation and dry eye disease. And so just yesterday, in fact, we announced some top line data on a Phase 1/1B study, whereby we were able to show that this drug is safe and tolerable on the ocular surface, as well as actually, even though it was a very short study, get some real direction, in terms of improving things like conjunctival hyperemia, in patients with ocular surface inflammation versus the vehicle control. So we will be driving that program forward into proper, larger Phase 2 trials. And then the third program is one that came from the Bayon acquisition, which is KIO-301. So this is now our posterior segment drug. And these are an incredibly exciting and novel class of therapeutics, that essentially are built around these ASIO benzene cores, which enable the molecule to change shape upon the presence or absence of light. So I envision this as a small molecule approach to optogenetics, whereby they’re trying to get reinsert a protein that would be light sensitive into downstream cells, so Retinal Ganglion Cells, or Bipolar Cells, we actually have the ability to turn those cells into light sensing cells with this small molecule. And for us, that was a real game changer in terms of especially a lot of the inherited retinal diseases like Retinitis Pigmentosa and knowing that we can actually target all forms of RP with this potential approach, and that study will start first man likely in Q3 of ’22.

 

Paul Karpecki: Those are exciting and very diverse in terms of portfolio, but of course, all eyecare ophthalmic related which is which is very exciting itself and to come into a situation by bringing some in or that was there to have three in a portfolio is quite exciting. And it’s also exciting, in a sense, the one late stage, relatively and then intermediate, and then startup in areas we have unmet needs. And I can see a lot of applications even for the first one that, you know, we can apply and look to and maybe further down the road, see kind of approvals in that direction, because I know a number of areas where this would help us as we practice clinically. So that’s exciting and neat path Have you has it been easy to take on that role. And five and a half months, you either inherited a pretty good team or just made a number of changes, Brian?

 

Brian Strem: You know, unfortunately, a few changes were made. But not too many, which is a good sign. And I’m really impressed with the team that that’s part of this organization. So I’m very happy with who we have now and how we’re advancing things and the responsibilities that are being divvied up appropriately. But again, this was a pretty big change. We had essentially three separate companies that all came together and needed to get aligned on who we are as an organization and that was a big part of the rebrand into a new name that was independent of all three of the existing if you will companies that came together here.

 

Paul Karpecki: You went from you know single product and category to multiple shots on goal here very quickly, which is also very exciting when you think about the value of the company, and its potential and already, you know, being public. So pretty awesome pathway to get there. And it’s good to see your leadership taking place and your style of it is very, very effective already, you can even tell by the interview. So you’ve gone through a very unique kind of path, any pearls of wisdom, for listeners who aspire to, I mean, you’ve worked in big companies too, but in the early where you’re at now, aspire to joining a startup enterprise or something at this level, where you’re bringing things through fruition as a company and all the way through to eventual FDA approval and availability test doctors.

 

Brian Strem: I mean, I know everyone’s priority heard 1000 times, but I would just say, find something that you believe in, and that you’re willing to dedicate yourself to, because it’s not easy, as everyone knows. And if it’s something that you don’t truly believe, will make an impact. And for me that impact seeing patients hopefully get better is the impact on striving for. That’s what keeps me going every day. And then the other part of it would just be you know, don’t be afraid to follow the data. Oftentimes, we get stuck on No, this drug has to be developed in this way for this indication, whereas your data may be saying something different. And for me, I’m always data driven. And if the data suggests something, then you know, who are we to think that we’re smarter than what the data is kicking out as? So? It’s okay to change course if if there’s a reason to and that’s a data driven decision.

 

Paul Karpecki: That’s outstanding. That was terrific. Brian, really appreciate all the insights you shared, incredible path you made. It’s very exciting for Kiora, definitely wonderful to see the development or to see our company evolve this quickly into 3 competitive exciting areas that are so diverse. Great to see you’re leading this company and in the eye care space. And, and as mentioned, thanks for sharing so much of your insights of your history of what you hope to do and wish you continued success with leading Kiroa Pharmaceuticals.

 

Brian Strem:Paul, thank you very much been a real pleasure chatting with you today.

 

Paul Karpecki: Thank you.

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