IP is extremely important. It's literally your foundation - the concrete under your company. This has been a really long journey which started about 30 years ago when my father became ill with an infection. It quickly developed into sepsis, which left him permanently disabled. So, he went from firefighter to wheelchair bound, for a very long time. I’ve dedicated my studies, my life and a little bit of my sanity to finding a solution. I'm Cynthia Hunefeld. I'm the founder and CEO of Evithé Biotechnology.
Our tagline is “Let's put nature back into medicine”. We develop botanical drugs, which are prescription drugs for a (medical) practitioner to prescribe. These include medicines with label claims. So, these are evidence based medicines.
We have a patent pending, we're working on our trade marks at the moment. I was 10 when my father got ill, that made a huge impact on a child growing up. So, I decided to go back to my roots, literally, and study plant medicines. Initially in the Netherlands. And later in New Zealand.
If you become a practitioner, or a doctor or a scientist, I think you start this job because you want to help people. So, for anyone in this profession, being able to get another tool in the medical toolbox is really important. Botanical drugs and ‘complex’ extracts tend to be more resilient against the development of resistance - or drug resistance. So having that complexity, using the way that plants protect themselves against diseases, harnessing that for human medicines is hugely beneficial. It has so much potential.
So going back to my first two years of studying Botany and Plant Medicine, my father became ill again. This time, I had a little bit of an idea of how plants protect themselves and the things that traditionally can be used to help someone fight infection and improve treatment outcomes. So, I went to his doctor to ask if we could add a plant extract to his treatment. He said, “Look you know, if your dad's okay with that, go ahead.” So, I gave him a plant extract and within a week, we really saw the results and he was allowed to go home. I thought, “If you can find out what's responsible for this, you might be able to help a lot of people.”
I started looking at IP quite early, working in drug development. And studying in that space made me aware of the importance of IP at a very early stage of business development. I was allowed to sit in university classes - one of the main lectures was IP and the importance of IP in drug development. That was really eye opening and a little bit concerning, to be honest. The majority of drug development is really focused on identifying a completely novel, single molecule. This really narrows the medical toolbox.
So, you can't patent plants. But we have developed a patent that covers the novel, botanical drug, it’s innovative steps and its application. I got great support.
I've got this amazing IP lawyer, Jane Calvert. I met her through Wellington NZ, who provided some early support with patent strategy development, because you know, IP is extremely important. We have investigated 1% of the Amazon rainforest. And this has given us 25% of the pharmaceutical drugs that are prescribed today. What about the other 99%?
Compared to pharmaceutical drugs, where there is a single active molecule, one pathway and one receptor site, botanical drugs learn from evolution.
This has been a really long journey. This story started thirty years ago, when Cynthia Hunefeld’s father became ill with an infection which quickly developed into sepsis. And that left him permanently disabled. She says, “He went from being a firefighter, to being wheelchair bound for a very long time.” Cynthia dedicated her studies, her life and she says, “a little bit of her sanity” to finding a solution.
It set Cynthia on a road to learn more about traditional European plant medicine. She is originally from the Netherlands, there is a long tradition in the use of plant medicines there. She decided to go back to her roots, literally, and study plant medicines - initially in the Netherlands, and later in New Zealand. Through these studies she identified how to use complex molecular solutions to treat specific human infections. This is the story of starting a business with the goal of using her research to offer a new medicine in the healing toolkit.
The Evithé Biotechnology tagline is, ‘Let's put nature back into medicine’. This business is being built on developing botanical drugs, which are natural prescription drugs for a practitioner or doctor to offer. The word Evithé comes from Hebrew Evia which means the living one.
In her first two years of studying botany and plant medicine, Cynthia’s father fell ill again. This time, she had an idea of how plants protect themselves and traditional approaches that can be used to help someone fight infection. She asked his doctor if she could add a plant extract to his treatment. He said, “Look, you know, if your dad's okay with that, just go ahead.” Within a week, they saw results and he was allowed to go home. The doctor said, “Well, I usually don't really believe in that natural stuff but I have seen the results and that really made a difference.”
I usually don’t believe in natural stuff… If you can find out what's responsible for this, then you might be able to help a lot of people.
Evithé Biotechnology has developed a product for the treatment of auto inflammation disease. They’ve started off with the treatment of interstitial cystitis - bladder pain - which has a whole range of biomarkers that are similar to those found in sepsis.
Working with scientific and business mentors, Cynthia has pushed her research onwards. Her scientific work has been to define methods and remedies for botanical drugs. Compared to pharmaceutical drugs, where there is a single active molecule, one pathway and one receptor site, botanical drugs learn from evolution. Cynthia says, “We have several active molecules that can address several receptor sites, for the treatment of more complex diseases. It is an expanded toolbox. Currently, pharmaceutical drugs are trying to fix the car with just a wrench and we're putting some more tools in the toolbox.”
We have investigated 1% of the Amazon rainforest. And this has given us 25% of the pharmaceutical drugs that are prescribed today. What about the other 99%?
Cynthia studied a postgraduate diploma in clinical research at Victoria University of Wellington. Her next step from there was to connect traditional knowledge and science. She found, in general, a plant never produces one constituent. She says, “It would die within a week if it just had one molecule to defend itself. So, I became really interested in how that could work in formal medicine development and botanical drug development. From there, I decided to take drug development to the next stage - I needed to find a way to connect tradition, science and business together.”
Surveys were a key tool in confirming the market need for botanic drugs. One survey identified that 78% of end consumers would actually prefer a botanical drug over a chemical one. The comments from potential customers were really enlightening to find out. They confirmed there is a large market – a large percentage of New Zealand practitioners felt confident in prescribing botanic drugs. She quotes doctors, “‘Look, you know, if you can show me the clinical trial - there is such a need for an expansion of the medicines’ toolbox.’ This was really insightful to the business.”
Cynthia worked hard to define, refine, and test her product. She presented a project to the Momentum Advisory Board, which is an advisory board of both university students from different universities and industry experts. At the same time she had the opportunity to present it to the A&P scholarship and the project won the A&P scholarship grant. With the support of Momentum, this project was put forward for the ‘Momentum Student Entrepreneur’ award. She describes winning this as “absolutely life changing” because it gave her the opportunity to apply for a grant. She received the research grant and that really helped the project move forward. It created the opportunity to work together with Callaghan Innovation experts and it turned out to be a huge opportunity.
Cynthia says, “IP is extremely important. It's literally your foundation - the concrete of your company. We have a patent pending and we're working on the trade marks at the moment.”
“I started looking at IP quite early. I think working in drug development and studying in that space made me aware of the importance of IP at a very early stage. I was allowed to sit in with the masters in drug discovery and development in Victoria University of Wellington. One of the main lectures was IP and the importance of IP in drug development. That was really eye opening and a little bit concerning, to be honest. It really showed that the majority of drug development is really focused on identifying a completely novel single molecule, which really narrows that medicines’ toolbox to about 2% of what this world has to offer for medicine development. I decided to start studying towards a Masters degree in innovation and commercialisation.”
She says, “Branding is really already in our household - my husband is a designer. So, he's got a great eye for branding and colours. And I was very happy to hand it over to him because that definitely is not my skill. So yeah, he has done a lot of work on the branding, and the packaging and the development of the logo and getting to the IPONZ website.”
Cynthia relies on an IP lawyer to patent her invention and guide the IP strategy for her business. With the support of Wellington NZ, she obtained early support for patent strategy development. She describes their support as absolutely foundational to the company, “It really helped me to get a good understanding from early on in the company's development process and the product development process. Because you know, IP is extremely important. It's literally your foundation - the concrete under your company. We were able to look at some really awesome inventions, inventive steps and how to protect those.”
It is important to consider how you will own your ideas and inventions right from the beginning. Cynthia says, “Start as early as you can. If you can, sit in classes that talk about IP, get a grant to talk with a lawyer early on, chat with a lawyer friend, get started as soon as you can. It is really outstanding how much influence IP has, and how many stakeholders are interested in having a hold of that IP at an early stage.”
She considers that her IP strategy isn’t just ‘set and forget’. Cynthia says, “It's really good too, you know, to go back over the science and identify that, you know, some inventive steps had actually been made, compared to other products out in the market. So, it's being able to do that at an early stage. It's extremely important.”
Owning the IP makes it possible to protect the development process of the product, the way it's composed and all the inventive steps that have been taken, that make that product the way it is. That makes it possible to raise funding. She says, “It is absolutely critical to have IP ownership in place to raise funding, especially the level of funding that you're looking towards, for botanical drug development.”
With the support of some really brave angel investors and private investors bringing both funding and expertise, we’re moving forward.
Pharmaceuticals are a global market. Evithé Biotechnology is now filing the investigational new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration in the United States of America. The growth of the business hinges from this point. Cynthia says, “We know that the botanical drug market is huge - it's several billion dollars’ worth. If you look at Europe - it's commonly prescribed. Netherlands has over 170 botanical drugs on prescription and France has 300 botanical drugs. US opened a botanical drug registration pathway in 2016, which opens a huge new market.”
She considers that New Zealand would be excellent for botanical work like this, “It is the perfect place for botanical drug development and biodiversity is absolutely unique. It's got amazing plants here that have some amazing healing properties - that in the form of botanical drugs can help a lot of people. I think it's a massive opportunity for New Zealand to have something that's uniquely good and share that with the world.”
“Learning from evolution and how plants have evolved to defend themselves against disease, we should be able to harness that for drug development. That's a really exciting step.”
“My dad has always been my superhero. He was a firefighter before he got sick, and he's still a fighter today. I named the product after him.”
View the full conversation with Cynthia Hunefeld (14:49) from World IP Day interviews with founders