Ruth Wu-Wong turned an Abbott layoff into a hot biotech startup
Ruth Wu-Wong took matters into her own hands after Abbott Laboratories shut down the research division where she had worked on a kidney-disease drug treatment.
She contacted a well-heeled colleague and, two years after the shutdown, helped found Vidasym, a startup that has 10 patents pending for several kidney-disease fighting drugs.
The company is competing in a red-hot research race, driven by constant new theories.
Vidasym’s lab at 2201 W. Campbell Park Dr. is in a hot spot, too — the building next door will soon house a flagship biotech “validation center” where biotech startups can convert their technologies into products and validate their products’ market viability.
The validation center, set to be announced in the next few weeks, will be open to any biotech startup company, and act as a hybrid incubator-research center, said Kapila Viges, director of EnterpriseWorks Chicago, a University of Illinois enterprise aimed at accelerating the startup environment for the university and the surrounding community.
EnterpriseWorks will run and oversee the validation center and the UIC incubator where Vidasym is located. The 56,000-square-foot incubator houses 22 companies and a wet lab.
Wu-Wong initially launched Vidasym with funding from Alan Lau, a pharmacy professor at UIC and a longtime colleague. Since then she has raised $2.5 million from a combination of angel funding, National Institutes of Health grants and partnership agreements with two companies to co-develop a drug for patients in China and Japan.
“We are trying to develop a more effective treatment, and one that is very safe,” said Wu-Wong, a Taiwanese native who lives in Libertyville.
Wu-Wong lured a handful of former Abbott to Vidasym including CEO Terry Opgenorth, Megumi Kawai, head of the chemistry department, and two pharmacologists, Drs. Jerry Wessale and Yung-wu Chen. Another Abbott alum, Daniel Norbeck, serves as an adviser.
Wu-Wong worked her way up from bench scientist to senior product development manager in 20 years at Abbott, and earned an MBA with a focus on finance while she worked there.
Dr. Stuart M. Sprague, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Chicago who chairs NorthShore University HealthSystem’s nephrology and hypertension division, said Wu-Wong’s “quiet and unassuming” persona belies a “very very bright, competent scientist” who succeeds at her missions.
That’s important because the search for a better kidney-disease treatment is big business: Aging baby boomers and overweight people with diabetes contribute to a growing incidence of the disease. That’s a problem for already-squeezed Medicare, which pays the largest portion of its outlay — $20 billion a year — on dialysis.
At least 15 million people have a stage of kidney disease in which their kidneys function at 30 to 59 percent of their capability, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Another 900,000 have 15 to 29 percent function, and 500,000 have less than 15 percent of their kidney function.
Dr. Daniel W. Coyne, professor of medicine in renal diseases at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said newer treatments for chronic kidney disease show promise in easing other symptoms, such as bone weakness and heart failure.
“We can now give only so much (dosages),” Coyne said. “Newer agents that target a Vitamin D receptor may have benefits well beyond treating bone health and may have benefits for the heart and vasculature system.”
Wu-Wong said Vidasym’s solution is VS-105, a Vitamin D receptor hormone that bypasses the kidneys in delivering the needed medication.
Vidasym’s other drugs work on reducing patients’ high phosphate levels.
Vidasym is one of nine Chicago-area companies that won grants to attend one-on-one meetings with potential investors and strategic partners at the BIO International Convention April 22-25 at McCormick Place. The 30-minute “speed dating” meetings would otherwise cost $2,500.
The Chicago-based Propel Center, a resource of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization, or iBio Institute, awarded the grants. The center aims to increase the numbers and success rates of life sciences startups.
The convention is expected to attract 17,000 people from biotech and life sciences companies and agencies throughout the world.
Barbara Goodman, senior vice president of Propel, said the Chicago-area biotech and life sciences community has been quietly growing for more than 10 years.
“There is more of a community effort now to build on the strength of what we have,” she said.