Vega Stultz joined the company back in early 2022, after a stint as COO at Graphite Bio, having previously held senior positions at Celgene (now Bristol Myers Squibb) and starting out at Eli Lilly.
“The opportunity to step into a senior role is a significant step in anyone's career, regardless of your background or gender,” she tells Bio-Pharma Reporter at Bio International 2023.
“I took that step a few years ago jumping from a large multinational company to a series A startup as COO, and there were a lot of learnings in that role where I drew upon my 20 plus years of career experience.”
While acknowledging that the majority of people in start-ups are specialists or scientific founders, Vega Stultz describes herself as a generalist at heart – who is able to strategize and “put the puzzle pieces together."
“That is essentially what I have assumed in this capacity as CEO at Ocelot. We have the pieces and the innovation; it’s just about putting them together in the best way that allows us to advance our goals and objectives,” she says.
“When I mentor, I often talk about seasons of a company and seasons of a person in their professional growth. Sometimes you have incredibly talented people, but it's not the season for what the company needs. And you have to be comfortable to say maybe this isn't the right time or the right place for you today.
“I believe if more leaders enable those conversations, we could all have richer careers. It’s also an opportunity to consider the special sauce of what a female leader might bring to the table that allows those conversations of development, empathy, and growth to factor into our core business decisions and objectives.”
The company recently bagged $36 million in series A financing, which will go toward a phase 2 trial for Ocelot’s OCE-205, a treatment for hepatorenal syndrome with acute kidney injury, a complication of late-stage liver disease that affects 75,000 Americans annually and has a survival rate of 50%.
“Ocelot is currently in the dose escalation portion of that study. We’re examining four different doses across cohorts versus placebo and that work will be completed in 2023 and inform the next stages of development as we finish this year and into next year,” Vega Stultz says.
“What we’re going to learn from this study will be critical. Mainly, the pharmacokinetics in patients with liver disease, the key pharmacodynamic measures for us change in serum creatinine, mean arterial pressure, key things that will let us know mechanistically we're hitting the target that we desire.”
After obtaining the data from this study, Vega Stultz explains that the next step for Ocelot is securing FDA feedback so the program can advance and expand.
"As a team, we're a good size for where we are right now. I've brought on a new board member, added some key strategic positions, so I want to be cognizant as a startup of scaling. As our work lands, we’ll be going into fundraising, which is a difficult environment, but we need to bring forward the opportunity to future investors,” she says.
While she recognizes that liver disease treatment is a crowded market, most therapeutic innovations are focused on early stage rather than late stage, giving the company its point of difference.
“There’s a huge amount of activity in the chronic liver disease space, case in point all the work being done at Bio International. However, there hasn’t been a true advancement yet – making the patient population significant and large, with 15% to 20% advancing into decompensated cirrhosis and from diuretics and diet to a liver transplant – as there are really no therapeutics in-between,” she adds.
“So there is not a significant amount of precedent that's an opportunity to differentiate as a company and bring value to patients. That is where my focus is and it is building a company on the shoulders of a real area of innovation.”
While large industry events such as Bio International present significant opportunities for Ocelot, Vega Stultz’s personal experience at the show proves that representation is an ongoing issue.
“I’ve run into at least a dozen old co-workers here at Bio – but they have all been men. It’s wonderful to reconnect and rekindle relations with people, but every single one that I’ve met has been a former male colleague,” she admits.
Therefore, building and nurturing her relationships with other senior women in the industry remains a top priority for Vega Stultz.
“I’ll be attending a CEO biotech sisterhood gathering this week and we are all really looking forward to it. These events allow me to step back and reflect. I can be a little more authentic and comfortable with my CEO sisterhood which feels wonderful,” she says.
“Your legacy ties are critical because they got you to where you are, but our future ties, I think, are the ones that empower you to keep going."