BIM winner Sarah Colombani launches OcciCal Therapeutics

OcciCal Therapeutics is currently in the process of finalizing a treatment capable of curing a respiratory dysfunction common in hospitals. The project's initiator, a research engineer at the PhyMedExp laboratorylaboratory, Sarah Colombani is supported by the Booster innovation Montpellier (BIM), which aims to identify and support innovative projects.

The young woman would never have imagined that she'd set foot in the business world so quickly. Barely eight months after completing her thesis, and propelled by the express support of BIM (Booster innovation Montpellier), of which she was a prizewinner at the beginning of December, Sarah Colombani is in the process of creating her very first start-up. Called OcciCal Therapeutics, this spin-off actually brings together five co-founders from Inserm, CNRS and the University of Montpellier, where most of the preliminary experiments linked to the project were carried out.

In concrete terms, she and her team aim to overcome a common respiratory disease, which occurs in 70% of patients when they enter intensive care. "It's a disease that the public doesn't know much about, and which develops in hospitals. At the moment, it's hard to escape, and it prolongs hospital stays by an average of 5 days. It therefore contributed to the overcrowding of intensive care units and the saturation of hospital beds during the Covid crisis, when everyone became aware of what was at stake in this malfunction," she explains.

Planetary Alignment

For her thesis, defended in July 2023, the researcher worked on a cardiac pathology associated with autism, from which many children suffer, and for which she received an award from the Fondation pour la recherche médicale. It's a promising subject, with a direct link to the respiratory pathology in which OcciCal Therapeutics is interested, since the protein and mechanism involved are the same. "But at the end of my thesis, I was a bit disappointed. I couldn't see any concrete impact on the patient", confides Sarah.

So, in the course of informal discussions with the future co-founders, and other researchers who had been working on the subject for over 10 years, the idea "germinated" all of a sudden. "It all came down to an alignment of planets. Part of the team had already demonstrated the feasibility of our concept on animal models close to humans. This enabled us to prove the efficacy of this miracle molecule, synthesized by the chemists we work with. So, after they filed a patent in November 2022, we decided to take the plunge.Itall clicked for us at the beginning of 2023", says Sarah.

The treatment she hopes to finalize with her collaborators via OcciCal Therapeutics has therefore been devised thanks to a combination of brainpower and multiple areas of expertise. Now backed by BIM funding, which in this case amounts to 48,550 euros, the young woman is preparing to move on to the next stage. The first step will be to find the right solvent to administer the molecule in humans without altering its efficacy. She and her associates will then define the therapeutic regimen to be adopted, in other words, how many injections and at what interval... "These are essential experiments before we can move on to the regulatory preclinical phase", adds the researcher.

"It's the first time I've pitched the project".

In this promising success story, BIM has acted as a gas pedal. It has also enabled Sarah to acquire business skills without going to business school. "We hadto learn everything. I was starting from scratch. But I was really motivated. I told myself that BIM was a good first exercise". Last October, as part of the Booster program, the research engineer attended a three-day training course to learn the rudiments of pitching. After that, she and her associates finally took the plunge. "It was my first time pitching the project with them. We answered questions in symbiosis, in front of multidisciplinary profiles, but who aren't researchers. It was good training. Even if I'd only received two euros, I think I would have seen it as a victory, given the skills I'd acquired in such a short time", she smiles.

As a result, the team pocketed a substantial sum to launch the project, and is currently benefiting from the support of a sponsor from the business ecosystem to accompany OcciCal Therapeutics' first steps for a year. In this case, the regional economic development agency AD'OCC... "When you come from a research laboratory, it's invaluable. I've learned a lot," says Sarah, who hopes to bring her treatment to patients by 2035...