This is Scimar’s origin story, from the lab to the boardroom
This is the story of a discovery, a dream, and destination.
In the 1990s, Dr. Wayne Lautt was a professor at the University of Manitoba. In fact, he was the head of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
He liked to ski, he did martial arts, and he was married to his high school sweetheart. He was even writing a book. Life was good.
He was doing a lot of research in the lab; and all of it was focused on a particular set of nerves in the liver. One of those experiments also involved insulin.
“What our protocol was,” says Dr. Lautt, “was to inject a small amount of insulin into an artery going to the brain. Then we measured how much blood glucose levels dropped in response to that insulin.”
They also tried injecting it into a vein flowing away from the brain. When they did that, they found there wasn’t really any difference.
“But our protocol also involved testing the hypothesis that insulin was acting on the brain through the vagus nerve to the liver,” Dr. Lautt explains. “We were investigating if it would have some effect if we cut those nerves. So, we cut the nerves and repeated it.”
They got a response, but not what they were expecting.
“The response to insulin was dramatically decreased,” says Dr. Lautt. “So that was a real puzzler.”
Now think about what he said there: “The response to insulin was dramatically decreased.” What he is describing there is “Insulin Resistance.” That was the broadly accepted definition of type 2 diabetes at the time.
To their shock and surprise, they gave the test animal all the symptoms of type 2 diabetes by cutting nerves in the liver.
This was Dr. Lautt’s “Eureka Moment.”
It was a discovery that gave rise to a long list of questions:
- Why would cutting nerves change the body’s response to insulin?
- Insulin comes from the pancreas… Why was the liver involved?
- Is type 2 diabetes linked to the liver? To the nerves in the liver?
He did a few more experiments and came up with a hypothesis that insulin wasn’t working alone. He theorized that there was something coming from the liver — a second hormone — that was helping the insulin do its job of taking glucose out of the blood.
Dr. Lautt’s explanation is more specific: “That was a eureka moment because that meant that there was a hormone that was being released from the liver that was being controlled by these parasympathetic nerves that was affecting the peripheral tissues, primarily muscle. At that moment, I told the whole lab, ‘We’re shifting gears. We’re going to take a look at this.’”
That should have been the beginning of the end for type 2 diabetes. There should have been a wave of investment, new lab work, clinical trials, and then production of a therapeutic. But that isn’t what happened.
Hear stories about unexpected scientific discoveries in this podcast episode.
Dr. Lautt’s lab already had a long list of projects it was investigating. He also had a full teaching load and another discovery that was moving ahead quickly. So, he looked for someone to take on this hormone research.
And no one would.
As revolutionary and as promising as this idea was, any scientist worth their lab coat could see this was going to take a lot of work. At this stage, it wasn’t really even a discovery, it was just an observation. Someone would have to dedicate years and years of research to prove that this hormone existed, and then even more work to prove it did what Dr. Lautt’s hypothesis proposed it did.
The years rolled by, and no one stepped up to take on the challenge. In fact, some people thought his ideas were crazy. The one rejection that still stings was from a journal he tried to publish in.
“It was sent to Diabetologia, and the manuscript was sent back unreviewed,” recalls Dr. Lautt. “They said that if it were true, it would already be known.”
Dr. Lautt’s dream of a cure for type 2 diabetes was being killed by apathy and skepticism.
“I don’t think there’s any advantage of having skeptics,” Dr. Lautt observes. “Skepticism is a negative thing, games playing. I don’t want a skeptic. I want people that are critical thinkers, that are going to challenge the hypothesis, find the weakness of the hypothesis, that’s all very useful. But don’t just be a bloody skeptic.”
The problem is the world has a lot of skeptics, and when you are up against a paradigm — an established, well-respected set of beliefs — you are going to meet resistance.
The obvious parallel is gravity. Before Einstein, everyone knew that gravity was a simple force, explained perfectly by Newton’s equations. Then Einstein comes along with some fancy-dancy math and shows that Newton’s simple system is just a special case of a more confusing and complicated system. In 1905, Einstein published his special theory of relativity. In it he said, “An object’s mass depends on how fast it’s going.” That seemed like science fiction at the time and all the experts told him he was wrong. But he wasn’t.
That was more than a century ago, but society still reacts to new ideas the same way.
Think about social media. When you read a post on Facebook that confirms what you already believe, you think that the post is true. But if a post contradicts something you already believe you think it’s false. But neither of those assumptions are really based on the merit of the idea in the post. It’s just that we don’t like to be told that what we currently believe is wrong.
It’s easier to doubt a new idea than to question your current beliefs. That can be disastrous when the new information has the potential to save millions of lives.
Type 2 diabetes today
The world is facing a type 2 diabetes epidemic.
- Over 537 million people in the world are living with it right now.
- It affects men and women equally.
- We see it in wealthy, western countries, and in developing nations.
- Last year, a million people died from it.
- The effects on survivors include limb amputation and blindness.
Every year that Dr. Lautt’s discovery sat on the shelf, millions of people were suffering. That frustration led to conversations between Dr. Lautt and his son, Mick.
“I’m not a scientist,” says Mick Lautt. “I’m a businessperson. I have a degree in Recreation and Community Management. I’ve run four different businesses. I’ve spent 20 years doing consulting in leadership and management. I’ve spent a lot of time working in and for the community. I’ve been working with at-risk youth for over a decade. And I teach in the Executive Education program at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.”
Mick had grown up as the child of a pair of academics; his mom Melanie was also a professor. He had developed an outlook that said anything was possible, you just need a plan, and the right partners.
He started to take an interest in what his dad was doing — not the science per se — but the logistics behind the struggle to get his discovery out there.
“It was always challenging for my dad to find the resources to continue doing innovative work. He was always scratching for the next round of funding. He was spending a lot of time dealing with politics, the administrative process, egos, and individuals along the way. And I just remember hearing a lot of frustrations around that. He really wanted to be just focusing on the science,” says Mick.
The right partners
Dr. Lautt began working with some investors and some incubator-type organizations. It was a first step toward building a team, moving the science forward, and being successful at getting it out into the world.
Mick decided to sit in on a couple of those meetings — after all, he was an entrepreneur himself and he wanted to see what their process was.
“As I listened, I realized that there were a lot of gaps in what was happening and what needed to happen. And I just thought, ‘This isn’t the right group. They’re not following best practices around building the necessary platform, the right team,’” Mick recalls. “I also heard things that didn’t give me the impression they were operating with the highest level of integrity. I didn’t think they were driven by the right purpose in their mission.”
In the investing world, that’s called a “pump and dump.” That is when you boost the value of a company really quickly without regard for the long term, or actually solving the root problem.Then you sell your holdings, pocket a big windfall, and get out of town before other investors catch on.
Wayne’s goal wasn’t a quick profit grab: it was to end type 2 diabetes. That was going to require a long-term approach.
“In November 2009, I was chatting with my folks and I told them what I thought of their potential partners. They said, ‘Well, then why don’t you do it?’ It didn’t take long for the three of us to kind of rally around that idea and decide that that was the way we were going to move forward.”
Family in Action
Melanie Lautt, (Mick’s mother and Wayne’s wife,) had left academia at this point to be a lawyer. She retired as a partner in her law firm and started working to create the legal foundations of the company.
Wayne kept doing his research.
And Mick… he went looking for an opportunity to tell the world what they’d found.
“I heard that there was a Life Sciences conference happening down in Minneapolis. So, we jumped on the bus and headed down there. Within a few days, my dad was up in front of 500 people presenting some of his breakthrough science,” said Mick.
It was an incredible moment for a company that two weeks before, didn’t even exist.
At the end of that presentation, Dr. Lautt said, “If anyone is interested in learning more, our CEO is in the crowd.” Mick waved his hand and sure enough, people came to him with questions: Lots of questions.
“That’s the first time people heard about Scimar,” he says.
What’s in a name
The name “Scimar” is a portmanteau. That’s two words mashed together… Like ‘brunch’ or ‘spork’ or ‘Brangelina.’
Scimar is a combination of the two words “science” and “market.” The company’s original tagline was “Bringing Breakthrough Science to Market.”
Hear funny stories about the importance of brand names in this podcast episode.
The Scimar business story follows a common arc:
- Lots of excitement and interest.
- But not much in the way of direct investment.
In the early years, Wayne and Melanie withdrew their retirement savings to fund the lab work. Then, in 2016, they took out a second mortgage on their house. Mick pitched their idea to a thousand investors before getting their first “yes.”
Then they got some momentum. They started hearing “yes,” a little more frequently. Since then, they’ve attracted $17.8 million from 93 different investors. But there is still a huge amount of work to do.
“We need to take this idea and get it to market,” says Mick, CEO of Scimar. “We need to get it to the people that are sick and living with this painful, disruptive disease. We want people to have better options when it comes to treatment. We also want people to get on a preventative program so they can stop the progression or avoid it in the first place.”
Fourteen years later
Between 2009 when the company was founded, and today as the calendar turns to 2023, a lot of stuff has happened.
- They did a lot of research.
- They created a nutraceutical called SciMar NuPa Daily.
- And they came up with a name for that hormone that Dr. Lautt discovered back in the 1990s.
Initially, the hormone was referred to as HISS. That’s an acronym for “hepatic insulin-sensitizing substance.” But now it is called “hepatalin.”
They have also opened a new laboratory to better understand how hepatalin is formed and how it works.
Dr. Victoria Sid is tasked with conducting many of those experiments.
“Our lab has adopted a bioassay in order to allow us to measure the glucose uptake response of these muscle cells,” she explains. “Once hepatalin is released from the liver, it acts selectively on the muscle tissue to stimulate glucose uptake and clear any excessive glucose from circulation.”
All of this fit with Dr. Lautt’s original theory from decades ago: that you need insulin and hepatalin working together for optimal glucose uptake. And that means type 2 diabetes (a disease where insulin is present, but your muscles still don’t take up glucose very well) might be caused by a lack of hepatalin.
Here is how the experiment worked:
- Dr. Sid set out dozens of vials, each containing muscle cells.
- She fed them some glucose (basically, just sugar water).
- Then she measured to see how much glucose was absorbed.
Then she repeated it but added insulin.
She did it again, this time adding hepatalin instead.
And then a fourth time adding both insulin and hepatalin.
The results were simple and dramatic.
“Our lab has demonstrated that when hepatalin is present, glucose uptake in these muscle cells is significantly more robust compared to when hepatalin was absent,” says Dr. Sid.
Essentially, when hepatalin was missing, the muscles didn’t gobble up the sugar. The muscle cells in that little vial were acting like a person with type 2 diabetes.
It was a landmark day: A major milestone for metabolic science, and a new understanding of type 2 diabetes. If this were a Hollywood movie, Dr. Lautt would get on the rooftop and announce to the world that he’d found the missing link in our understanding of type 2 diabetes, and was ready to end the global epidemic today!
But of course, medical science doesn’t work that way in real life.
“I understand from everybody else’s perspective why this is really exciting. This is a new paradigm that redefines type 2 diabetes. I can understand why there should be an awful lot of people that are really excited about this,” says Dr. Lautt.
“But you have to defend yourself against that emotion. You got to not let yourself get swept up in that. I have to be my own worst critic. I have to examine everything that we’ve just seen and find a flaw in it and be the one that attacks that flaw,” says Dr. Lautt.
So, the research continues.
Dr. Sid has repeated the experiment — but this time with fat cells in the vials instead of muscle cells. Same as before, she added either insulin, or hepatalin, or both. What she found was that the fat cells only reacted to the insulin, with no effect from hepatalin.
Laboratory work is important: Any hypotheses you have can be tested and confirmed through repeated experiments with cells in vials. But at some stage you need to do clinical trials, which means working with real human beings.
Krista Coventry doesn’t work for Scimar. She works for an independent company that guides research companies through the clinical trial process. (Biotech companies are increasingly going this route as it adds an extra layer of impartiality to the process.)
That’s what she is doing for Scimar.
Clinical trials are done in three phases:
Phase I asks: “Does it harm the patient?” These trials are done with healthy subjects.
Phase II asks: “Does it provide some benefit to the patient?” These studies are done with people who have the condition being treated. Sometimes these studies will include a placebo, a similar looking medicine that doesn’t contain any active ingredients. This allows the investigation team to compare how well the investigational product works against not having any treatment.
Phase III asks: “Exactly how should we deliver this treatment to get the best results?”
“When those results are favourable,” says Coventry, “phase three studies can be considered a final confirmation of the investigational product’s safety and efficacy.”
Looking ahead at 2023, the focus continues to be on product prototyping and clinical trials. The big one will be a phase II trial of NuPa Renew.
Given to people who are already pre-diabetic, NuPa Renew is intended to stimulate their production of hepatalin, triggering their bodies to convert sugar in the blood into muscle, thus reversing the impacts of type 2 diabetes.
Moving into product development and clinical trials means less work for the company’s Chief Science Officer. Dr. Lautt is looking forward to seeing where the company will go.
“It’s not discovery science anymore. It’s now applied science, clinical science, therapeutics, getting it to sick people,” says Dr. Lautt. “It has been a long and winding road of discovery. And this is the beginning of a new entry ramp onto a super-highway where we’re going to bring this to people’s health. The mission is well underway to being fully achieved in the next few years.”
The Scimar journey and the story of the Lautt family has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. And if they ever do make that movie, the name has already been chosen: Manitoba Moonshot.