February 15, 2024

Member Spotlight: Arialys Therapeutics

Arialys Therapeutics is Pioneering Breakthroughs in Auto-Immune Neurology and Treating Rare CNS Disorders

Arialys Therapeutics was founded recently in 2021, but the company is swiftly gaining recognition for advancing new medicines for the central nervous system (CNS). After emerging from stealth mode in September of 2023, Arialys was named one of the most innovative startups of 2023 by PM360. The company operates in the emerging field of auto-immune neurology. Recent discoveries show that the brain is not as immune-privileged as previously thought—meaning it may allow more immune modulating cells into the brain than researchers once believed. “The brain is one of the last frontiers, like the ocean or outer space. There’s a lot that we still don’t understand about it,” says Mathew B. Mitchell, senior vice president of corporate development at Arialys. Arialys found its niche with its lead molecule, ART-5803, focusing on treating anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis (a rare condition) and autoimmune psychosis.

Mathew says a large part of his role is “selling” early science to investors and potential strategic partners, and he leverages 18 years of experience in the industry. He has partnered at nearly every stage of drug development representing more than $1.7 billion in transaction value with companies including Novartis, Janssen and Pfizer. He is equally passionate about giving back, and volunteers on the board of directors of the Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood and Biopharma Leaders of Color, and is also a mentor for SD2. In celebration of Black History Month, we spoke with Mathew about his career journey, the challenges and excitement that come with a life science startup, and why it’s important for leaders from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM to be visible in their role and involved in the larger community.

What is the latest news about the company you can share?

We’re focused on developing a molecule for NMDA receptor encephalitis—this condition blocks the neurotransmission of glutamate, a crucial neurotransmitter. Blocking glutamate activity leads to problems resembling a psychiatric episode, progressing into neurological issues and hospitalization. We’re confident in our understanding of how to treat this, and our thesis extends to potential applications in psychiatry. We’re going to start with the rare disease and then build our thesis around the potential for this program to help in the psychiatric space.

We attended the JP Morgan conference in January and the news that we’ve been sharing is that we’re currently running the GLP tox studies required to get us into the clinic and we hope to be there by the end of the year.

We purchased this asset from Astellas, the second largest pharma company in Japan. Our CSO, Mickey Matsumoto, is also our founding scientist and was at Astellas for 32 years. He is responsible for the creation and development of this program. After a few of their other CNS programs failed, Astellas decided to exit the area and offer this program for sale.

Jay Lichter, our CEO, saw this opportunity and decided to take it forward together with two other investors and then Johnson & Johnson came along shortly afterwards. We’ve been able to successfully repeat the key animal study that Astellas performed and now we’re racing to the clinic with what we think is a really differentiated molecule.

What is your biggest challenge right now?

The biggest challenge right now is getting into the clinic by the end of the year and being very focused on that timeline and making that happen together with our team. Not to mention the fact that we’re attempting to develop a product for an indication for which there is no approved medicine—the regulatory strategy requires working closely with the FDA to explain what we want to do and why. So, we need to stay focused. Generally speaking, it’s knowing what to say ‘no’ to.

There’s a famous quote that I believe is true: ‘half of innovation is execution.’ You can have a great idea, but if you can’t execute no one cares. Maintaining and refining a solid plan and knowing what to say ‘no’ to and what to say ‘yes’ to, that’s at the forefront of every day.

There is always a pile of things to do—what part of that pile am I going start chopping away at, and why? What are the priorities, and what needs to be pushed to the side? I know many people can relate to this, but particularly in a small venture-backed startup where the dollars are finite, your task is to stay very focused and manage dollars, time, and people well.

How did you get your start in life science?

I had a very circuitous path to get here. I started out selling pharmaceuticals and even worked for a software company during the dot-come era before ending up in the graduate department at UCSD. After the scientific deep dive, I wanted to combine my people skills with my love for science. Figuring out where those two things meet led me to corporate development and ‘selling’ early science: knowing enough science to understand what’s novel and why, and then helping business and money people understand why it matters. That’s my lane.

I am, first and foremost, a people person. I was destined for talkative, extroverted roles [laughs.] The science piece came from two places: my mother [who is from Ireland] was a nurse combined with my outdoorsy dad [who hails from Memphis, Tennessee]. I did a lot of hunting and fishing growing up in Lompoc [on California’s Central Coast]. As a kid I caught a lot of lizards and snakes, and gutted fish and rabbits. Seeing all of that plus everything else you come across in the woods and fields made me feel very connected to life and biology. I naturally gravitated in the medical direction.

As an undergrad I had an upper division class in biochemistry that described the central dogma about how DNA produces a message in the form of RNA and that RNA gets translated into protein. We have this recipe that operates in this crazily elegant way. And when I learned about what needs to happen for proteins to fold correctly and operate within this system it was nearly a spiritual experience! [laughs]. That moved me closer to the bench than the bedside, you could say.

In science, we understand that diversity is literally required for the unfolding of evolution and progress.

You are very involved with charitable organizations and mentoring. What motivates you to prioritize giving back?

In terms of nature vs. nurture, I don’t know how much of this is ‘pre-baked’ versus conditioned [laughs]. Both my parents were in service roles and my father did a lot of other public service. He started an amateur boxing initiative in town and was often helping kids and people in our little community.

In science, there’s something called the conservation of matter which states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. What that means in essence to me is that we’re all working with the same stuff—all of the elements that we have right now are what have been here from the time of the Big Bang and will always be here. In layman’s terms, we really are all in this together, buddy! The air I’m breathing and the water I’m drinking is made up of atoms that were part of starts and animals and all sorts of living things and knowing that connects me to everything. It may sound weird, but it’s hard for me to operate as an ‘individual contributor,’ per se. I always feel like I’m part of this bigger thing and this is a lot of what compels me to participate and be involved in the community. It feels natural.

This report from 2023 that shows that just 12 percent of the total life science workforce is Black, and about 6 percent of researchers are Black. What would you like to see more life science companies do to address the diversity disparities in our industry?

My take on this is that Black people and people of color on planet Earth are the majority. We [in the U.S.] happen to live in a country and in a context where people of color are less frequently represented in leadership, in power and in opportunity. But I feel like this is steadily shifting. Slower than anyone wants it to, but it is happening nonetheless.

When I first started in my career, I went around trying to find other people in business development positions who looked like me. I couldn’t find any! Then I met Michael Penn at UCSF (and we’re great friends). These days when I attend industry events, I see more people who look like me. The numbers are not where we want them to be, but I do think it is progress and that we will continue to progress. I honestly think it’s the nature of the system we’re in—in science there is a modicum of understanding about this, that diversity is literally required for the unfolding of evolution and progress. I have to believe that we’re progressing. Even though we have moments, and things we can point to, where it feels like things are really messed up, I am hopeful.

As for what can companies and people do to get their arms around this? I don’t have any recipes for that, but I do believe one thing that’s helpful is proximity—it’s hard to hate people up close. For example, what sense would it make for me to be in North County and make comments about what we ought to be doing as a society or as an industry, but never go below the 8 or the 54 freeways? We have to get to know and be closer to people and bridge gaps. In terms of introducing more underrepresented people to this industry, people like me need to be visible, involved, and accessible. It really is important to be the change that you want to see and do your best regardless of where you’re at. That’s me as a person of color focusing on what I can change. What companies and systems can do to help is continue to recognize how this race-based system we’re in doesn’t help anyone. I recommend folks check out A Long Talk About The Uncomfortable Truth for practical methods for dismantling these unhelpful ideologies.

We’re currently celebrating Black History Month. What does Black History Month mean to you and why is it so important that we celebrate it?

I appreciate the work of Carter G. Woodson and people who came afterwards for creating space in the American conversation to remember the contributions of Africans on this continent. It is important that we continue to dismantle the myth of white supremacy.

What advice do you have for a young person today who wants to become a leader in our industry?

Read books. Knowledge is power. That will serve you well in any industry.