May 10, 2021

A $12 billion startup you’ve probably never heard wants to cure baldness and smooth out your wrinkles

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By Lydia Ramsey From Business Insider

Samumed is a $12 billion private biotech startup you’ve probably never heard of.

The San Diego-based company has attracted $300 million in funding and a heady valuation thanks to a pipeline of what could be revolutionary treatments to regenerate hair, skin, bones, and joints.

It offers the promise of reversing conditions related to aging by regrowing hair on balding heads, smoothing out wrinkles, and regenerating cartilage to worn-down joints in people with osteoarthritis.

If that seems to be too good to be true, the company is well aware.

“We get that reaction from anyone who actually listens to our story,” CEO Osman Kibar told Business Insider in January.

That skepticism has only grown with the company’s valuation, which is now one of the highest for a private biotech company. The firm’s list of backers — lacking as it does specialist healthcare investors — and secrecy over its science have also raised questions.

Then there’s Theranos, the onetime $9 billion startup that has fallen from grace and now casts a pall over the healthcare-startup space.

Cevdet Samikoglu, Samumed’s chief financial officer, understands all of that. In fact, he asked many of the same questions. Samikoglu met Kibar more than 30 years when they both attended Robert College, a high school in Istanbul. Kibar had worked in venture capital, launched a company that later sold to pharma giant Novartis, and eventually created an incubator where he came across the technology that would become the backbone for Samumed.

Samikoglu signed on as an investor in Samumed initially in 2007, at which point he asked the same question.

“I’d basically badger [Kibar] with that question time and again,” Samikoglu said. “When I came on board, the first few months I was kind of thinking about that, ‘I can’t believe we’re sitting on this, I can’t believe the potential of it.'”

Unlike Theranos, Samumed has been open about presenting its data, and before it gets to the market, the treatments will have to be approved by the FDA.

In the end, Samikoglu simply became too busy to think about it.

“We might be sitting on a molecule that already has the answer,” he said. “But taking that and making it into a drug is a decade-long struggle.”

Here’s the science

Your body is equipped with something called progenitor stem cells. These cells are in charge of repairing and replenishing specific organs in the body. For example, a mesenchymal stem cell of the osteoblast lineage can go in and repair bone that’s damaged. That process has something to do with the WNT pathway, a set of proteins that tell these stem cells to spring into action.

“By dialing up or down various WNT genes or WNT processes, you can trigger any one of these progenitor stem cells down a certain lineage,” Kibar said.

As we get older, our WNT levels start to get out of balance, Kibar said. Take the example of mesenchymal stem cells. “If the WNT activity levels can no longer increase such that it’s not making enough bone, now you develop osteoporosis.”

What Samumed hopes to do is manipulate the pathway that makes these progenitor stem cells spring into action, so that they don’t cause these diseases.

For example, Samumed has a treatment for androgenetic alopecia, acommon form of hair loss. The idea is that by using the treatment, people with alopecia will be able to regrow some of their lost hair follicles, which are the layer of cells and connective tissue that envelop the root of a hair and are critical for its growth.

IMAGE: Samumed chief executive Osman Kibar; chief financial officer Cevdet Samikoglu; and chief medical officer Yusuf Yazici.Diana Yukari/Business Insider; photos courtesy Samumed

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