Dr. Jennifer Perusini: Co-founder & CEO, Neurovation Labs, Inc.

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Jennifer Perusini is a New York-based neuroscientist and entrepreneur. She earned her B.A. in Neuroscience at Barnard College and her Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience at UCLA, where she studied the mechanisms underlying Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Dr. Perusini is now co-founder and CEO of Neurovation Labs, Inc., a biotechnology company dedicated to developing a PTSD diagnostic and companion treatment. Her doctoral work forms the basis of the company. Prior to that, she held a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University in the Departments of Psychiatry and Integrative Neuroscience. She is also an active member of Women in Learning (WIL), a nationwide organization dedicated to the support and advancement of women in science.

How did you get into the industry?

I always knew I would make a career out of science. I love being in the lab, designing experiments, and performing research. My early career completely consisted of academic research, focusing mainly on anxiety disorders and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and working in a university setting. What really motivated me to break away from the academic world was the frustration of watching paper after paper rejected from publication and projects stalled due to lack of grant money. I knew it would be an extremely bumpy road ahead, but I felt that it was time to get what I believed to be important research out there to the public in a shorter time frame so that we could actually turn data into something useful to help people. I took a huge chance with the idea that I can change the field in a less conventional way and formed Neurovation Labs (NL), a biotech company devoted to developing a diagnostic and treatment for PTSD.

Any emerging industry trends?

Currently, the presence of smaller biotech start-ups is growing (compared with the big pharmaceutical companies). This is great because it allows all resources to be focused on narrow specialties as opposed to an uneven distribution among an array of different pathologies. Also, there is now a huge market for disease biomarkers. It is so important we start viewing diseases by their root cause instead of by a myriad of varying symptoms. This will lead to treating diseases at the source instead of suppressing individual symptoms with marginally effective medications. The ability to detect disease biomarkers additionally enables us to measure treatment efficacy, both to develop new drugs and to determine progress of treatments in patients.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

In the pharmaceutical/biotech space, neuroscience products were always slow to make progress. This is partly because of the novelty of the central nervous system (CNS) disorder field compared with other physiological disorder fields and partly because of the poor pre-clinical animal models available to neuroscientists. This is still a hurdle in the field but something we believe we have a handle on given our robust and valid PTSD rodent model.

Potential opportunities for NL in particular are to partner or collaborate with government agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which would give us access to a large and homogeneous PTSD patient population. We think such collaborations would greatly facilitate the development of our PTSD diagnostic and treatment, hopefully expediting the time to market and getting real relief to PTSD patients faster.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

Inspiration for NL mainly came from my personal experiences. I became interested in the science of coping at an early age. In 2001, I lost both my mother and grandfather within three weeks of each other, which all happened immediately after the September 11th attacks. Being a New Yorker and witnessing so many others in my neighborhood lose loved ones, I noticed how everyone around me coped in such drastically different ways after these traumatic events. In graduate school, I essentially studied coping mechanisms and what happens in the case of severe and traumatic stress using a PTSD rodent model. NL is based on my doctoral dissertation research exploring the mechanisms underlying PTSD, expanding on this early work to create products that can help those afflicted with the disorder.

My vision for NL is that we become the first PTSD theranostic company, meaning that we can diagnose a subset of PTSD patients that will benefit from our companion treatment and then administer that treatment, thereby creating individualized therapy. We are currently in simultaneous development of both the diagnostic and treatment products, and we hope to achieve this goal in the next few years.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

NL is in active pre-clinical development of both a PTSD diagnostic and a companion PTSD treatment. We are advancing toward clinical trials for the diagnostic, first to confirm its use as a PTSD biomarker and afterward to confirm efficacy to diagnose PTSD in patients. Meanwhile, we are engaged in a drug discovery program for the treatment.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Our keys to success at this point have stemmed from making good connections very early on, even for events that will take place far into the future. We reached out to as many organizations, agencies, institutes, and business/science experts as possible to gain early exposure. While many could not help us with early funding or pre-clinical lab work, we have made great connections to assist us with performing clinical trials, with perfecting our products, and beyond. This even allowed us to form an exceptional team of advisors that help us with every decision we make. Early networking, while daunting, is a great way to ensure success not only in the present but for years to come.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

The most difficult moments for NL—and this certainly is not a new issue faced by start-ups—have involved problems with personnel. Until you have the right team assembled with the right skill-sets for your business, it will be difficult to operate smoothly, and this unfortunately may take some trial-and-error. Working with anyone who either does not have the necessary skills or, even worse, lacks the drive and dedication to push the company ahead will lead to frustrations within the team and will hinder progress. It is critical you reach a point where you can trust each team member to handle their tasks with proficiency and expediency. The hiring (and maybe even firing) process may take some time, headaches, and hurt feelings to get there, but a company can never operate at its fullest potential without a strong team. Fortunately, NL now has an incredibly competent and driven team, which extends all the way up to our advisors, and progress has never seemed easier.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

We are not quite at the stage where we have clients. However, the ideal experience we are hoping to create is one where someone suffering from PTSD gets confirmed with the disorder using our diagnostic and is right away provided with a concrete treatment plan that works in companion with the diagnostic. We hope to streamline the diagnosis-to-treatment process and help to create more efficacious treatments for psychiatric disorders.

How do you motivate others?

I luckily now have an amazing team that is self-motivating and hard-working. I think the key to keeping everyone at NL motivated is to recognize that everyone has varying expertise and to allow each person to be the master of his/her domain. I respect everyone’s talent at NL, and I let them know that. At the same time, trusting my co-workers and feeling comfortable delegating different tasks has in turn helped me become a better leader.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Be lean and efficient. Early-stage biotech development can require expertise in many different subject areas and a variety of labs outfitted with equipment costing millions of dollars. For example, our company requires facilities for animal tests, chemistry, and drug assays. It would be foolish to build a large laboratory costing millions of dollars and to hire more personnel for these purposes when our pre-clinical process will not be more than a few years. Therefore, outsourcing lab work and using shared facilities has proven to save us both time and money. In the end, it will make both your team and your investors happy.