Ann Arbor-based RetroSense Therapeutics LLC, a spinoff from Wayne State University, was honored Wednesday as the most innovative company at the annual Angel Capital Association convention in San Diego, the largest annual gathering of angel investors in the world.
RetroSense was one of three companies that were launched with angel funding to be nominated for the Luis Villalobos Award, named in honor of a longtime angel investor.
Receiving the award were company founder and CEO Sean Ainsworth and WSU faculty member Zhuo-Hua Pan, the scientific director of the Ligon Research Center of Vision at the Kresge Eye Institute in Detroit and professor in the school’s Department of Ophthalmology.
It was Pan's research that was licensed by Ainsworth when RetroSense was founded in 2009.
“This is a very unique and significant discovery developed right here in Detroit, and it will be a major step forward in the lives of patients with vision challenges,” said Mark Juzych, M.D., director of the Kresge Eye Institute and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, in a news release.
“This honor will help RetroSense and Dr. Pan find additional funding to move the technology forward in to the clinical setting. They are most deserving of this outstanding award,” he said.
The two other award finalists were ActX Inc. of Seattle, which was founded in 2012 and uses software to analyze a patient’s genetic information and provide relevant information to physicians in real time; and GroundMetrics of San Diego, which uses electromagnetic technologies to provide survey and monitoring services in the field for oil, gas and geothermal companies.
“There are a lot of angel investments made every year, and to be named as one of the top three is pretty exciting,” Ainsworth told Crain’s last week before leaving for San Diego.
RetroSense Therapeutics is developing a lead product under the working name of RST-001 that uses gene therapy to restore some vision in patients suffering blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa or advanced dry age-related macular degeneration.
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted orphan drug status for RST-001 for the treatment of RP, which can sharply increase its speed to market and decrease its cost. There are no FDA-approved drugs to improve or restore vision in patients with those conditions.
Ainsworth said he hopes to begin human clinical trials this year.
The company recently completed a Series A funding round of almost $7 million from angel investors and venture capitalists, and Ainsworth said he is finishing a term sheet for a Series B round of $5 million to $8 million that he hopes to start raising soon.
The investments help develop a real company from what once seemed more like an interesting science experiment; Could a light-sensing gene that helps pond scum find sunlight also help the blind to see?
RetroSense’s therapy is based on the photosensitivity of a gene called channelrhodopsin-2. This gene allows blue-green algae to detect where the sun is shining on a pond so they can move in its direction and convert light to energy through photosynthesis.
When the gene, which is inside a cultured medium called a vector, is injected into the eye, research on animals shows that previously nonphotosensitive retinal cells are converted into photosensitive cells, allowing limited vision.
Read more about the therapy and the company in this 2014 report from Crain's.
The Angel Capital Association includes about 220 angel groups and more than 12,000 individual accredited investors, as its members.