Shelli Brunswick Interview with Nicole Wagner of LambdaVision
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Well hello, and welcome to another Space Foundation Space Commerce Entrepreneurial interview. I’m Shelli Brunswick, the Chief Operating Officer of Space Foundation. Today I have the privilege of talking with Doctor Nicole Wagner. Hello Nicole.
Hello, Shelli, how are you?
I’m doing great, it’s nice to join you today.
It’s great to be here.
Wonderful! Well, let me tell our audience about you ’cause you have a fantastic bio. So, Doctor Wagner obtained her PhD in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Connecticut under the advising of Doctor Robert Burge. Nicole entered the graduate program in 2007 and spent the majority of her graduate career working on optimizing retinal containing proteins for applications in devices. During the course of her PhD research, she played a critical role in the proof of concept experiments which helped to found LambdaVision in May 2009. Nicole is an accomplished scientist and entrepreneur with numerous peer reviewed publications presenting her research both nationally and internationally at meetings. Doctor Wagner is the recipient of numerous awards including the Connecticut Technology Council’s Women of Innovation Collegiate Innovation and Leadership award, Connecticut Magazine’s 40 under 40 for the class of 2015, and the 2020 Women in Aerospace achievement award for 2020, and the Hartford Business Journal’s Women in Business award for 2021. Nicole, I’m so honored you’re joining us today, we look forward to learning more about you as well as LambdaVision.
I’m excited to be here!
Awesome, well, first of all, let’s talk about your company. Can you tell us more about LambdaVision?
Absolutely, so, LambdaVision is a startup company that was founded out of UConn that is developing a protein based artificial retina to restore vision to the millions of patients that are blinded by end stage retinal degenerative diseases. So, we’re going to start by targeting the orphan indication of retinitis pigmentosa first, and then follow on to the much larger market of age-related macular degeneration. So, for those of you who don’t really know much about those diseases, both of these diseases are diseases which affect the photoreceptor cells, or the light sensing cells in your eye. So, I’m hoping that everybody who’s watching this segment has nice, healthy retinas, and your eyes are taking the light in the room and converting it into a signal that can be sent to the brain. Patients with those diseases, they lose those light sensing cells, and so what we do, is we’ve created an artificial retina that will replace the function of those damaged rods and cone cells to restore high resolution vision. So, we’ve recently had a pre IND meeting with the FDA, which gave us a lot of concurrent and a lot of clarity on our nonclinical our manufacturing and clinical study designs, and right now we’re at the phase where we’re just trying to work as fast as we can to get this into patients.
That, that is just incredible. And now, what I want to do, is kind of bring in the space component today, like, why are we talking with the Space Foundation? So, first of all I want to understand more about what is microgravity and how does it benefit your company?
Great so you know what we’ve been doing is we’ve been, the way that we actually manufacture these artificial retinas is through this layer by layer deposition approach. So, essentially what we do is, we manufacture these, you can imagine almost like a big sewing machine where we’re dipping a substrate into various different solutions. Now, gravity will affect the deposition process so things like sedimentation in the solutions, homogeneity of the solutions, convection, evaporation, those can all affect the deposition process. So, you may ask, why does a vision company get involved in space? It’s actually a pretty cool story. We were part of Mass Challenge in 2016, and it’s one of those situations where we were really in the right place at the right time, somebody from CASIS and Boeing were there, they were sponsors at the time of Mass Challenge, they came around, they knocked on one of the tables, and said, you know we’re having a meeting right next door, you know people were interested, can you participate? And so, at that time, we sat down, and we talked about what we were interested in in terms of this layer by layer deposition process, and that’s how this whole process, and hope project really got started. So, in discussing this with CASIS and Boeing what we discovered is that microgravity can improve this layer by layer deposition process, because we remove issues like sedimentation, and improved homogeneity in a microgravity environment. One of the really cool parts of winning the Mass Challenge CASIS Boeing prize in 2016 was that we were partnered with an implementation partner, Space Tango, and Space Tango was really awesome to work with, but what they did is, they took over the parts that LambdaVision wasn’t an expert in, for us it wasn’t that we never envisioned doing work in microgravity, but there was a lot of questions about, how do you actually get to space? So, by working with them, it allowed us to focus really on what we’re really great at in terms of looking at the artificial retina, and analyzing the thin films, and Space Tango took a lot of of the work in terms of, how do we do this in microgravity? And so they did a lot of the automation, and building of the apparatus for us, what was, you know, sort of kind of building on that, is that you know, once we won this prize, we flew on SpaceX 16 at the end of 2015 or 2018 rather, which was just a really really cool experiment, experience and experiment for us. It was an opportunity to actually see something that we developed on earth be launched in a rocket to the International Space Station. We actually had the opportunity to go to Kennedy Space Center, and watch the launch, so it was really just an incredible experience.
That is really amazing! What I’d like to do is, you know, your company is fantastic, but I really want to share with our audience how it started with this company, in this concept, how did you, what was your journey that got you here?
So, a little bit of serendipity here. You know, for me it was a little bit of a non-traditional path. I initially graduated high school and you know, I really loved the Sciences and math, and you know, took my first step into college by going to Florida State. And at that time, you know, I really wanted to be a physician. Fast forward, Florida State, after being there, really wasn’t the perfect place for me, it was, I was homesick, and I’m from New England, so I came back closer to home. I went to U Conn, and to be honest, the only reason I joined a research lab was to check an application, check a box on a medical school application that I did research, so I started with Doctor Birge, and this time was about 2004, 2003 or 2004, and really, you know, got to see what his lab was doing, and what the research that he was conducting was about, and so Doctor Birge was really a pioneer in using light activated proteins for device applications, and so you know, after being there for a year I got more involved into the, with the research, and decided that I was going to pursue a PhD, which was, you know, different than my initial medical school applications and and target early on, but I think you know, actually worked out for the best for me. So, after joining his lab, an opportunity presented itself to start a company around using this light activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, for application in this artificial retina, and you know, when I had the opportunity to take on this leadership role, I really ran with it. And so, you know, that really was the start to LambdaVision and the start to my career, an introduction into entrepreneurship.
Amazing, it just highlights that you never know how your journey is going to go, but you know, just always be prepared and then be open to new ideas and new opportunities as the door opens, so thank you for sharing that. You shared earlier some of the partners that helped you along the way, but I want to learn more about the partners that you, along the way, had, or some of them and how were you able to find them, and how did they help you position yourself for success? You know, there’s, there’s certainly been no shortage of mentors, you know, academic, faculty, business advisors, that helped us along the way, but as it relates to a lot of the space work that we were doing, you know, as a vision company in space manufacturing, it really wasn’t on our radar at first, and it really wasn’t, not on our radar, not because we didn’t think it was possible, but just because as a vision company, we didn’t know how to get there, and there’s, you know, there’s a lot of thinking about the experiments in a different way, and you know, I’m happy to talk a little bit more about that, and some of the lessons that I’ve learned moving forward, but you know I think for us, we had the support of CASIS and Boeing, which was provided, some financial support, but it also allowed us to be partnered with Space Tango, and Space Tango, you know, is really a pioneer in you know, building, and you know these Tango labs on the International Space Station that help to automate experiments. And so, through working with them, we were able to bring our vision really to fruition and do the first experiment on the ISS. You know, I think also beyond, you know, the relationship that we have with NASA, and CASIS in terms of just funding, the other advantage in partnering with them is that they really, you know as a small business, one of the things that people always say is, you know, it’s always about the team, and building out your team, and so by partnering with CASIS and Boeing for this initial study it really allowed us to expand our team exponentially. I mean, we had access to some of the leading researchers in microfluidics, thermodynamics, engineering, mechanical engineers, just a huge wealth of a team, that it, came you know, that came to us just by, through this project. Additionally, for those of you who are thinking about, you know, maybe doing something in microgravity, they have helped us, you know, also reach out to potential funders, other partners, industry partners, so that has been, you know, for us, great as an early startup company, you know, I think as we we move forward, you know, I think it is not just NASA, CASIS, Boeing, but it’s also the support from the state of Connecticut, being part of an incubator program here working with the University of Connecticut has been phenomenal as well as some of the other early government agencies that have supported us as well. So, the National Science Foundation and the National Eye Institute have been incredibly supportive moving the company forward and helping us get some of that R&D support.
Wow, so you talked about a number of things that help entrepreneurs, finding the right team, finding partners, finding some seed money, now you have talked about manufacturing, and so I want, would you tell us more about GMP and how it is different than manufacturing on earth, and why did you choose to pursue this form of manufacturing rather than traditional manufacturing methods?
So, GMP really stands for for good manufacturing practices, so any company that is developing something that needs to be used in the body or clinically will need to adhere to good manufacturing practices, and really, what that means is that if you’re going to be using this in the body, it needs to be something that is manufactured with consistency control as well as reproducibility, and, you know terrestrially, or on earth, there are a number of GMP facilities where you can go that have all of the regulatory guidelines and everything in place, to be able to manufacture a product that will be eventually be used in humans. So, what we’re doing is is just, that, I mean, we’re going to adhere to all those same guidelines, but now we’re starting to look at what that might look like if we do this in microgravity. So, there’s a bit of thinking about what might, what GMP manufacturing looks like in microgravity, as well as what some of those practices and policies are going to be, and doing the research, really, with a different quality standard, and adhering to a standard that has, you know, a lot of documentation and processes and procedures in place.
So, for us, you know, I don’t think we’re trying to reinvent the wheel here, I think what we’re really looking at is, how can we manufacture the best product, that we can use to restore vision to these patients with macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, and so, regardless of where it’s manufactured, we are working to implement those processes and procedures for now.
Now, that’s fantastic, I love how we talk about, you know, microgravity environment, manufacturing in space, it’s all, you know, exciting technology, and like you said, we’re using GMP, whether it’s on earth or in space, so long this process as an entrepreneur. I’m sure you had some challenges. Would you share some of your challenges that you’ve had, what were some of your biggest challenges you’ve had?
Well there’s certainly no shortage of challenges as an entrepreneur as a researcher as a scientist you know. I think for us or for me personally you know one of the biggest challenges in starting up a company was really I would say youth and inexperience in the beginning. You know it’s that you haven’t done this before and so you know you have to demonstrate to the people that you’re pitching to or the government agencies that you’re trying to get some funding from that you have the right team in place and so for me you know that was initially a challenge. But you know since that time we have we have significantly built our team an excellent board of directors and I’ve really been working with a number of business advisors as well to really help us overcome some of those challenges not a scientific perspective the other challenge in doing this in microgravity is really thinking about the experiments slightly differently so you know when you’re doing something terrestrially you can you know you go into the lab you try it out it might fail no problem the next day you set up the experiment and try a different parameter. Microgravity you don’t necessarily get as many shots on goal so there’s certainly a lot of advanced planning that goes into these experiments before launch things that you know I wasn’t thinking about before so wait you know the way that we’re doing this in a in a terrestrial environment this is really taking up a lot of landscape and the labs you know we had to miniaturize the device we had to think about voltage requirements temperature requirements storage all of those things you know I think a scientist you think about but you may not be the key drivers of your experiment at least when you’re doing this terrestrially. So, that was certainly something that we’ve learned and have had to change along the way so for me you know I think that that plays into a lot of a lot of different things whether it’s technology glitches whether it’s you know getting your computer to work whether it’s your car doesn’t work you know I think these are challenges that that everyone seems to face and so it’s really about becoming adaptable and I think you know those just being open to that and understanding that every day is going to be a little bit different really has helped me personally overcome a lot of those challenges.
That’s wonderful ’cause again it’s highlighting that everyone’s facing challenges and you face them as an entrepreneur as well. And a startup company so amazing. Well share with our audience some of your biggest successes.
Successes, you know I think it’s always harder to talk about your successes right but for me you know I think one of the biggest successes for me was graduating with my PhD you know it was a long journey to get through the PhD but what I really liked about it is that I had the opportunity really to take a research project and really transform it into something that is now a company that’s poised for growth and that is going you know that is developing a product that’s going to help millions of people worldwide you know so seeing that whole process for me was personally you know very gratifying and something that I get a lot of personal satisfaction from and I view as a huge success you know beyond the professional successes you know personally I’m a mother a wife you know I’ve enjoyed being a role model for my kids you know my kids now when they see a rocket launch they say mom look at it you that’s your rocket up there and so that’s been a lot of fun in watching them and seeing how they love science and nature and you know they take my business cards out and say that there are a business girl so you know watching them grow has been you know personally you know as well in accomplishment for me as well as you know building community of other entrepreneurs I have been you know for me I’ve been passionate about seeing you know helping other entrepreneurs I have been very fortunate to be on the receiving end of a lot of mentorship and have had a great group of advisors and so for me if I have an opportunity to give back to other entrepreneurs you know I’m very happy to do it and I find that very rewarding as well.
I am grateful for that and that’s part of why we have this podcast series and put that offer a lessons learned that you’d like to share with the entrepreneurs that will be listening to this podcast.
There are there are so many lessons learned right? I was recently asked to be my high school commencement speaker this year and so I’ve been thinking a lot about you know lessons learned from me and you know really how did I go from thinking about medical school to being a researcher to starting a vision company to now being funded primarily by NASA and doing microgravity work and so you know I think the one thing I would say to people is just show up you know a lot about life and a lot of you know is working hard but it’s a lot of serendipity and so you never know who you’re going to meet sitting on you know sitting next to on the bus or on an airplane and so you just don’t know what’s going to be around the corner and so for me you know I always tell people you know show up work hard and you know you will you’ll achieve what you want because you just you never know who you’re going to meet you know another thing that I always like to tell entrepreneurs and this was a tough one for me too but if you don’t ask the answer is always no so being an entrepreneur can be incredibly intimidating and you know as you’re starting off you certainly don’t know everything I can you know on the story as I was talking to a VC when I was right out of Graduate School and a lot of this is learning the language right so I knew the language of science but I didn’t necessarily know the language of business and so you know the very first question I got is you know is your product a 510 KAP, MAA, BLA and I was like Oh my gosh you know I’m sitting there Googling what all of these words meant but simply ask the question learn be open to finding out what you don’t know and you know if you if you don’t ask the answer is always no you know I think sort of to round it out the other part is just be open to pivoting there are so many changes every day is different you know every experiment is going to come with its own set of challenges and just be open to those challenges.
That’s great lessons learned for everyone watching today not just entrepreneurs but great life lessons for all of us so thank you we did talk about some of the financing you receive and startup funding one of the questions you know people want to ask is what makes this financially feasible especially when you’re looking at manufacturing in space
You know I think this is an important this is a really important question for anybody that’s thinking about starting a business I mean there are so many great ideas that are out there and you know it’s not just about having a really great idea but it’s you know about having a great market as well and there has to be a huge unmet need so as we’re thinking about doing this in microgravity you know a lot of the questions we get is you know is this feasible? I mean now if you manufacture this in space can you make money off of this and so you know for us what I think is unique about our particular product and what makes it a great example in a potential use case for manufacturing in microgravity is that we are targeting the orphan indication of retinitis pigmentosa so retinitis pigmentosa effects but 100,000 people in the United States or 200,000 people if you can include Europe and then over 1.5 million people globally but one of the benefits of working with an orphan diseases that usually have small clinical trials you have a small usually a smaller preclinical trial as well and then you also work very closely with the FDA which is a huge advantage so for us this gives us the opportunity to work with a smaller patient population so we have a much smaller scale before we move to a larger market so we’re not thinking about manufacturing you know hundreds of thousands of these on the first run to the ISS you know we’re talking about hundreds to 1000 and the other advantage here and how we are manufacturing this is that we are you know some of the huge drivers of cost for manufacturing onboard the ISS now has to do with astronaut time automation how much weight and mass you’re flying and so the other advantage here is that this is a very small product and that the protein and everything that we’re using is very stable so for us I think you know there is the economics are there behind the product and you know I think it’s a great opportunity to explore manufacturing in microgravity and also building out some of these GMP capabilities which can then be applied to many more other markets beyond the artificial retina again clinically to other applications as well so pioneer you’re a pioneer in many ways.
So, we talked about you know partnership we’ve talked about finance defining your market you know you’re kind of setting yourself up for success but one of the areas we haven’t spoken about and I’d really like to understand your thoughts on the importance of advocacy and awareness.
You know I think for me when I think of advocacy I think it’s about learning about what opportunities are there I mean it’s also about support and so for me you know as I think about advocacy and awareness I think you know especially as it’s relating to a lot of the space based work it’s about letting people know that these markets exist when people know that your product can be manufactured in different places you know really being pioneering and at the forefront of a lot of this you know I would encourage people that are listening to this podcast to reach out to myself other mentors people who have done this before because where there’s a will there’s a way and I think you know it really truly takes a village to move these products along and it’s not a one person thing it’s a consortium it’s a lot of different partners and by reaching out and you know just asking people and becoming aware of what the opportunities are you know you really opened up a new a new market a new opportunity for yourself you know.
That’s fantastic and Nicole we’re so grateful you joined us today are there any parting words you want to share with our audience before we sign off?
You know I would just tell people to have fun you know if you’re not having fun then it’s time to move on for me that was one of the first bits of advice you know I knew when I was going to become a CEO and take over you know leading this company that it was going to be hard and you know my very first mentor said to me you know in a goal have fun with it this is not going to be easy this is going to be challenging if you’re not having fun you know let us know when it’s time to move on so while that can be challenging you know I would tell everybody you know have fun with it take the opportunities learn what you can and just you know have a certain openness to exploring new ideas and opportunities.
Fantastic well thank you so much Nicole this has been an amazing interview we hope you’ll join us again in the future.
I would love to, I would love to join you again be part of this this is this is been wonderful talking with you wonderful.
Well if you’re interested our audience if you’re interested in learning more about our Space Commerce Entrepreneurship program or watching more of our Space Commerce Entrepreneurial series you can go to our website at spacefoundation.org and check us out and check out our Space Commerce series. I want to thank you for joining us again today and we look forward to seeing you again. There’s a place for everyone in the new global space ecosystem.
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