Beyond The Printed Page | January 24, 2022

Ever Learn A Lesson The Hard Way?

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Bernard Coulie
Bernard Coulie, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO, Pliant Therapeutics

Bernard Coulie, M.D., Ph.D., learned a hard lesson at his first startup. The company, ActoGeniX N.V., a small biotech in Belgium, was using probiotics to stimulate the microbiome in a defined way. The company was the first to ever try this, and as such, it became a bit of a nightmare when dealing with the FDA and EMA, as they didn’t know how the product should be classified. “Ultimately, it ended up being considered a gene therapy, though there was never any insertion of a gene,” he explains.

According to Coulie, when there’s nothing already in the market, not only are you challenged with having to pave the regulatory and safety paths, you have to embark on vast physician, patient, and provider education, which requires lots of money, along with investor conviction to play a long game. “We ended up selling the company because our European VCs were no longer willing to fund it.” That sale involved billionaire R.J. Kirk, whom Coulie recalled meeting somewhere in 2013. “R.J. came up to me and said that we were doing what he wanted to do, and that he was going to buy us. I was like, I don’t think that will happen.” But a year later, ActoGeniX had no cash left, so Coulie called Kirk. Ultimately, they came to an agreement in early 2015 for half cash and half stock, totaling about $60 million. Coulie stayed on for a couple weeks until an agreement was reached for him to leave. “Sometimes you have to make decisions and direct a company toward an exit you might not have wished for when you started,” he concedes.

But you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down, especially one earnest in using the wisdom gained from lessons learned the hard way. Today, Coulie is president and CEO of Pliant Therapeutics (NASDAQ: PLRX) and the subject of our upcoming feature article in the February issue. Subscribe now to ensure you get to read the whole story behind the successful building of this fibrosis disease focused company, along with the scientist charged with leading it.