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April 19, 2021 / 2021 Tech 25

2021 Tech 25: CaroGen targets breakthrough immunotherapy drug

HBJ FILE PHOTO CaroGen CEO Bijan Almassian (right) and researchers working out of their Farmington lab.
At a Glance Company: CaroGen Corp. | Industry: Bioscience Top Executive: Bijan Almassian, President & CEO HQ: 400 Farmington Ave., Farmington No. of Employees: 10 Company Website: https://carog | Phone Number: 203-815-5782 See all 2021 Tech 25 honorees
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Immunotherapies. Vaccines. We’ve all had a crash course in these subjects during this year of the pandemic.

Now a Farmington startup is taking immunotherapies and vaccines in new directions in the battle against disease — including COVID-19.

Bijan Almassian is president and CEO at CaroGen Corp. His small team — five full-time employees and five part-timers — occupies space in UConn Health’s Cell and Genome Building on Farmington Avenue. But much of the firm’s research is going on in laboratories spread across several universities.

CaroGen’s lead product is an immunotherapy that targets Hepatitis B, a viral disease that affects the liver and is spread through bodily fluids. While there are Hep B vaccines on the market, the one CaroGen is working on is for treating chronic Hepatitis B, a disease that afflicts 240 million people worldwide.

The vaccine is in pre-clinical trials and has attracted a $5 million grant from the National Institutes for Health. Yale University and Albany Medical College are the research partners on the project.

CaroGen is also working on immunotherapies for ovarian cancer with researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit and for colorectal cancer with researchers at UConn.

Elsewhere, CaroGen is playing a role in the possible development of follow-up vaccines for COVID-19 variants.

The basis of CaroGen’s business is an immunotherapy concept developed by Dr. John Rose at Yale. CaroGen holds the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the versatile virus-like vesicle (VLV) platform.

“It’s a long-term play,” explains Almassian.

Indeed. CaroGen become a portfolio company of Connecticut Innovations in 2013 and has scored some impressive grants since 2018. But it has generated zero dollars of revenue.

The business model calls for developing the pure science from proof of concept through the early stages of testing. However, when testing moves to the costly phased trials, CaroGen would seek to collaborate with a pharmaceutical company with the deep pockets necessary for drug development and marketing.

The road to a breakthrough product sale is a rocky one but Almassian sees the challenges clearly. He has experience developing other drugs as CEO of the now defunct Aria Neurosciences in Hamden. The firm had been working on pharmaceutical treatments for Alzheimer’s disease since 2008.

One of CaroGen’s largest challenges is access to capital.

“We wouldn’t have survived without Connecticut Innovations,” he said.

Bijan Almassian

Still, he is frustrated by CaroGen’s inability to tap Connecticut’s private investor community.

At one low point, Almassian flew to China and raised $1 million. He contrasts that to the zero dollars he’s raised from investors within his home state.

Grants and research partners have bridged the gap so far. But CaroGen’s breakthrough moment isn’t here yet.

Almassian, an immigrant from Iran who holds a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and postdoctoral training in oncology at Boston University Medical School, remains confident.

“I’m building a company for the long haul,” he explains.

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