Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
This week, we spoke with Persis Anderson, founder of a bio tech company specializing in a cream for joint pain and osteoarthritis. Anderson spoke to Inverse about the challenges of linking biology with business, how she got the idea, and more.
How did you get your start?
My late father-in-law had joint problems. He was already on a concoction of different medicines for other condition, so we started to look for something that might be safe. While looking, we were informed about comfrey, a traditional herb known to treat joint and muscle problems. So we actually had comfrey root leaves grounded and mixed with different oils and turned it into a pultice. He did get considerable results. That was reassuring, so we wanted to turn it into a business because we liked the sound of being able to assist all these people. Pain can become extremely debilitating — just unscrewing a jar in the kitchen is painful for a lot of people. Their lifestyles get affected because they can’t play sports anymore or do their gardening or dancing.
But clearly, the powdered root and oil was not going to cut it if we were to make it available worldwide. So in 2006 I set about putting together a team of specialists — chemists, researchers, product development people. We put together a product which had a standardized extract — the Allantoin in comfrey, which is a very powerful compound — we combine it with a few other compounds like tannic acid and various other mainly natural ingredients. We then undertook some patent-supporting studies to show that this combination worked much better than comfrey on its own, and those studies were taken under the auspices of the Oklahoma State University.
The whole idea was even though this is a herbal botanical formulation, we wanted to develop it as an ethical drug would be developed, so we didn’t cut corners despite the challenges.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Funding, which is pretty par for the course for any young technology company.
How about specifically in terms of combining two disparate sciences: biology and technology?
The pharmaceutical world and the best experts in the pharmaceutical sector do not have a deep understanding of how botanicals work. You can standardize an extract, but it’s not a synthetic product, so it’s never going to be 100 percent the same. So that’s been a challenge in terms of marrying of the minds, and it has been challenging in terms of advisers, regulatory pathways, and collaborations. Certainly that’s been a challenge to explain why we’ve done the amount of research we’ve done for a product that could have been on the market a few years ago. But now I would say that as time goes by, there is a strong tendency even in the pharma world of them realizing that a botanical can work; the science is there, and that they should be keeping an open mind to adopting botanical products.
Since there are so many different layers to this — the business side, the pharmaceutical side, the technology side — which came easiest and which side was the biggest learning curve?
The biggest learning curve was the technology side. In my mind it was just the most normal thing to do: If you have the product, you go and do the research. And because we had access to really good research institutions, the research part was easy. It was trying to combine research with this botanical product and then present it as a package to people who were outside of the botanical field. That was challenging.
And what’s been the most rewarding part for you?
The last 10 years have been devoted to this, so it’s been a long and fulfilling journey. We’re about to commercialize it so we’re extremely excited about getting it out there. The CEO for the commercialization company has been in San Francisco for the past three months and he and I are jointly driving the process. So that’s going to be a highlight of my career, when it goes out with a bang. I’m looking forward to that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.