Around a decade ago, a researcher at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine (UTSGM) and a graduate student in her lab began to imagine creating a company based on a technology they were developing.
In 2022, their initial dream became a reality. They launched Orion Therapeutics, a biotechnology startup company developing next-generation RNA medicines using a novel drug delivery system.
Deidra Mountain, PhD is Orion’s Director of Vascular Therapeutics Pipeline and an Associate Professor in the Division of Vascular & Endovascular Surgery, Vascular Research Laboratory at UTGSM. Mountain’s former mentee, Trey Fisher, PhD, is the President and CEO of Orion.
Even though Orion is a very new startup company, this venture is something we discussed years ago,” said Mountain. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if we started our own company centered around this drug technology?’”
Orion is developing a targeted lipid nanoparticle (LNP) delivery platform that packages and protects nucleic acid drug payloads for safe and effective use in human patients. The delivery platform, first discovered by Fisher during his time as a doctoral student for Mountain, has the potential for nearly limitless utility in the RNA therapeutics and vaccine market.
There is huge potential for the technology to be impactful in a broad spectrum of clinical areas,” said Fisher. “We are interested in how we can translate this to clinical application for vascular patients and other patient populations.”
Mountain believes neither she nor Fisher would have felt comfortable starting a company independent of the other.
My career has been defined by academia and translational research, so starting a company on my own was not practical,” said Mountain. “After Trey finished his PhD and went on to begin his career in industry, he started to understand what it would take to start a biotech business. Once he had those first few years of industry experience under his belt, in a partnership, I knew we could be successful.”
Orion recently executed an option agreement with the UT Research Foundation to advance the technology. In addition to their laboratory space at UTGSM, Orion also signed a lease for lab space at UT Research Park and is part of the Spark Business Incubator program.
It’s important for this company to be successful in Knoxville. We don’t want to grow the technology, flip the company and move away. We want to stay here. We love this community,” said Fisher. “UTRF has been crucial in helping us network and create a basic strategy for moving forward. They are helping us grow this company in Knoxville.”
The National Science Foundation recently awarded Orion Therapeutics and UTGSM an STTR Phase 1 grant for their project to further validate the technology. The company is currently in the middle of the customer discovery process and amassing a suite of data to share with potential clients and investors.
UTRF is thrilled to sign this license agreement with Orion Therapeutics and support them in commercializing their technology,” said UTRF President Maha Krishnamurthy. “Trey and Deidra are paving the way for next-generation RNA medicines with their innovative drug delivery system. We’re ready to see what they’ll do next.”