From Belgium to NYC and starting a ‘super sniffer’ company

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Charlotte D’Hulst left Belgium for a postdoc in NYC. Today she has two kids and lives in Brooklyn. Oh, and she founded a biotech company, MouSensor, LLC. Hard to resist the entrepreneurial buzz in NYC…

Charlotte moved to the Big Apple for a postdoc position on fragile X syndrome. But she got hooked on the sense of smell instead, so she joined Prof. Paul Feinstein at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Dr. Feinstein is a world expert in the generation of transgenic mice to study the biology of the olfactory system in vivo.  For the last 30 years, he has been deciphering the odorant receptor development components of the mammalian olfactory system, as well as identifying its signaling components.
A few months ago, Charlotte and Paul founded MouSensor, LLC, after developing its proprietary “super sniffer technology.” The New York-based startup, which specializes in the genetic alteration of the sense of smell, has created a first-of-its-kind platform technology to detect, discover and modify odors.

We had no real incentive to explore applications until they stopped the funding in 2015. The best thing that could have happened, by the way.

They see commercial opportunities in three fields. First, they plan to disrupt the biomarker market by developing disease-specific “chemosignatures” to non-invasively monitor therapeutic interventions. Secondly, their platform has the potential to finally crack the human olfactory code, which would allow for the rational engineering of novel scents in the flavor and fragrance space. Lastly, their supersniffers could be employed to sniff out drugs and explosives.   

A check for 1 million dollars to spend on basic research

Charlotte explains: “It took us almost five years to develop the in vivo model, and we continued to design new experiments to learn more about the genetic modulation of smell. Our research was funded by a private company. They gave us carte blanche and a check for 1 million dollars. A great way to continue our basic research! But at the same time, we had no real incentive to explore applications until they stopped the funding in 2015. The best thing that could have happened, by the way. We realized that our ‘super sniffer technology platform’ had great commercial potential. We patented the technology — the university is the owner of the provisional patent — and MouSensor is negotiating an exclusive license. Initially we were only considering one purpose for the technology (using genetically modified mice to sniff out explosives), but today we see a broad range of applications.

Starting your own company? Move to NYC!

“We founded MouSensor in February this year. Setting up a company in NYC is fantastic. There are so many incentives, from both NY state and the city of New York, for startup companies in biotech and life sciences! The goal is to pull academic researchers out of the universities and have them setting up companies. The support — non-dilutive funding as well as mentoring programs — is just great. We also applied for the NSF I-Corps program [the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program, which aims to develop and nurture a national innovation ecosystem] and obtained intensive mentoring and funding to prepare us for third-party fundraising. We went through a 7-week boot camp, working with the ‘Lean Startup Canvas,’ a more actionable and entrepreneur-focused business plan. The program forced us to ‘get out of the lab and test our hypotheses.’ Every week we were obliged to have at least 15 interviews with people outside the university. We really got out of our comfort zone.  The mentors of the program kept challenging us, even tempting us to give up. It’s all part of the ‘game,’ preparing you for entrepreneurship and getting to know your customers!

We got out of our comfort zone.

The fragrance and flavor industry got all excited

“During the program, we met with the Senior VP of R&D of a large fragrance and flavor company, which turned out to be a fantastically serendipitous meeting. He was blown away by the fact that we could express every human receptor in our mouse model and develop a library covering the full human odor palette. He pointed out that this was a great asset for the fragrance industry because there is currently no rational design to develop fragrances. Organic chemists develop different organic compounds, deliver them to research perfumers — human supersniffers, so to speak — and only a few people worldwide are qualified. The perfumers start combining compounds to develop new fragrances, fine-tune existing fragrances or identify cheaper compounds and combinations. But it’s all trial and error, based on subjective human interpretation.

He was blown away by the fact that we could express every human receptor in our mouse model and develop a library covering the full human odor palette.

This meeting triggered us to adjust the technology and to start thinking about an ex vivo high-throughput methodology based on the dissected neurons of the super sniffer mice. The platform allowed us to conduct a biochemical assay by overexpressing one odor receptor in one vial; ironically, this assay could never be used because of the low abundance of receptors. Today, our technology can determine which odors activate which receptors, using the existing biological selecting system. This is a unique and very valuable proposition.

Networking does work!

“This NSF program was a great stepping-stone for the very prestigious ELabNYC program (an entrepreneurship lab in bio and health tech developed by NYC Economic Development Corporation). It was a very challenging and competitive application procedure, but it was totally worth it. This program includes MBA boot camps, roundtable dinners, different trainings, access to a huge business network, a personal coach and different mentors — actual business consultants paid by the city to advise us whenever we need them. This is awesome!

We also got connected with a large biotechnology company, and we are discussing a potential collaboration. We got in touch to better understand how to develop a high-throughput platform. It turned out they were actively looking for biomarkers that could determine if a therapy works or not. Existing biomarkers depend on the mode of action of the disease. Our platform doesn’t have that limitation; it looks for disease patterns, regardless of the metabolic pathways. Linking diseases to a specific chemosignature (always using the same platform of 400 human receptors) creates the ultimate medical diagnostic! We opted for a way in via drug development: We will use our signatures to identify lead candidates in preclinical development, and later on we will develop biomarkers or surrogate endpoints in clinical trials to monitor the success of therapeutic intervention. Only then do we plan to move into diagnostics.

We recently pitched for some 300 VCs, angels, foundations — everyone from the NYC biotech scene was invited. We are currently focusing on non-dilutive sources such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program — America’s seed fund, so to speak — to get to our first milestones and to de-risk our venture. It’s looking good, and we are riding the wave!”