Radio Cade

Enzymes to the Rescue

October 10, 2018 Season 1 Episode 5
Radio Cade
Enzymes to the Rescue
Chapters
Radio Cade
Enzymes to the Rescue
Oct 10, 2018 Season 1 Episode 5
Helena Cowley
Show Notes Transcript
A native of Sweden, Helena Crowley moved to the U.S. in 2009 as a teenager. She is the CEO of Captozyme, a company that developed an enzyme to degrade oxalates, a key component of kidney stones and possibly the source of other problems for the body.
Richard Miles:
0:01
Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, a podcast from the Cade museum for Creativity and invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James, Robert Cade who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace. This morning we have Helena Cowley who is the CEO of a company called Captozyme with us this morning. Welcome Helena.
Helena Cowley:
0:47
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Richard Miles:
0:48
So Helena, we start out by asking our guests a little bit about themselves. So prior to becoming a CEO of a company, where are you from? Where were you born, what did your parents do? Do you have siblings, all that good stuff. And tell us a little bit about your pre-CEO days.
Helena Cowley:
1:03
So I actually was born and raised in Sweden. I grew up in a small town, but I spent most of my life in Gothenburg, which is the second largest city in Sweden. I grew up with two siblings and we have a great connection, but we're very different actually, I mean I've always been interested in the natural sciences. My sister studied psychology and my brother, he's actually an MBA working for price waterhouse cooper, so there I got an opportunity to brag about my siblings, but I, I moved to the US that was in 2009 and I actually had a short stint with a biotech company developing a medical device here in the area. I got connected with the area originally because there was a company here in Alachua that had their headquarters in Sweden and I did an internship in, back in 2007 with them and that's how I first got connected with the area and I just fell in love with it literally and moved back in 2009 after I had completed my master's in bioengineering in Sweden. And then I pursued a career here in the US.
Richard Miles:
2:17
Were you always drawn to sort of engineering and science? I mean, I know as a kid you played the piano right? And you played some soccer, so you're sort of athletic, musical. Where did the science fit into this?
Helena Cowley:
2:29
It started with a high school teacher. He taught biology and chemistry and he was just really good at making it fun, which was the key, because I always say it's like a feedback loop. The things that you find fun, you spend more time on it, you get better at it and when you get better at it, it's more fun. So then you're in that positive feedback loop. So it really starts with doing something that's really fun.
Richard Miles:
2:59
And me about your parents, are either one of your parents a scientist? I know your mother is from China, right?
Helena Cowley:
3:04
That's correct. So my mother is originally Chinese and my father is Swedish and that's how I was born in Sweden and my mother is a registered nurse and she's actually working in dialysis in particular, which is interesting. So it relates to what I do now.
Richard Miles:
3:20
Do you remember that as a kid? Did you understand what she did as a nurse?
Helena Cowley:
3:23
Well, I understood that she was helping people but not...
Richard Miles:
3:26
In the field or anything like that.
Helena Cowley:
3:27
Exactly.
Richard Miles:
3:27
Okay. Let's talk a little bit about the technology of Captozyme. I know it has something to do with the kidneys, so explain to the listeners what it does and who it helps or how it works actually.
Helena Cowley:
3:39
In order to tell you about technology, I have to explain first a little bit about kidney stones because Captozyme...
Richard Miles:
3:47
Always my favorite subject, so let's...
Helena Cowley:
3:50
Because Captozyme develops products to prevent kidney stones and the majority of stones are made from calcium and oxalates and everyone knows about calcium but perhaps not about oxalates and our products essentially addressed the oxalate portion of the stone. So we removed the oxalate making it impossible to create that stone. And our products are enzymes and enzymes are essentially proteins that have an activity. So the activity that our enzymes have is that they break the oxalates. Essentially cleave it into different parts and those two parts are naturally occurring. One part is carbon dioxide, one part is formic acid, and those are things that you have in your food. You know, you have in your coke and etc. So our enzymes breakdown oxalates to two other pieces that you find in your food.
Richard Miles:
4:43
So Helena, you're the CEO, but you're not the inventor, correct? Or the discover of this.
Helena Cowley:
4:50
So there is a lot of history behind the development of these enzymes and we have several patents, some pending, some approved and I'm the co-inventor on that second patent, which is the patent that lays the foundation for our product. So we currently have one product that we're marketing, so one type of enzyme that's already available and it is selling through one of our subsidiaries because it is a food enzyme and it's a supplement and it's called Nephure and it essentially removes oxalates from your food. So there's different ways of approaching oxalates and I should explain. So essentially oxalates can originate from either your food or from your own body. When they come from your own body, that's more of a severe disease condition. When they come from your food, that's what our product is currently doing. It removes oxalates from foods. And that's the one that's called Nephure that we're currently marketing through one of our subsidiaries.
Richard Miles:
5:50
So if somebody doesn't have access to this, what is the conventional treatment now? I mean obviously people get kidney stones, but what are the ways in which people have been trying to prevent kidney stones? Is it simply all diet or are their medications or what's involved?
Helena Cowley:
6:04
That's a great question because the challenge here... so when we talk about kidney cells, people don't always realize that there's many different types of them, but when it comes to calcium oxalate stones that were addressing, the recommendation is to essentially to hydrate. That's the most important one, to drink more water and that's not always easy. You know, people forget about it and you just realize that you're thirsty and at that point you've already been dehydrated for a while. Reducing your protein intake, reducing sodium levels, because that effects how much calcium is excreted into your urine. So there's a couple of different dietary recommendations for calcium oxalate stones. If you have an issue with high levels of calcium in your urine, you can also become recommended a cya side, which is a prescription.
Richard Miles:
6:56
So in addition to being an engineer, you also got an MBA from University of Florida, so you know about running a business, which is good if your CEO. Tell me about Captozyme. How many employees does it have? What has been your experience? Give us a little bit of the highs and lows of running your own company.
Helena Cowley:
7:14
You know, we're still pretty small so we're 20 people and it's definitely highs and lows with running a business. The highs are that you get to work with amazing people because a lot of time that I spend is and has been since we're so small and just starting out to essentially build a team to find those people that are way better than I am at running certain things. So for example, we just recently invited to start, so that was a director of quality really important position. We're really happy to have him, a director of marketing, director of sales. All those people are coming on board just the past 12 months, so we've been growing pretty quickly just the past year, but that's one of the great experiences is just the people that you get the opportunity to work with that are way better than yourself and a lot of areas, so you learn a lot.
Richard Miles:
8:09
What has been your biggest surprise? I mean, is this the first company that you've managed or have you done this before?
Helena Cowley:
8:17
It's the first company that I've managed, so it's a lot of development on my end as it is in every position, you know, you have to always just continue working really hard and continue educating yourself and surrounding yourself with great people.
Richard Miles:
8:32
Were there moments where you just thought to yourself, "I have no idea what I'm doing?" Or did you just manage to figure it out day to day? Tell us about some of those surprises you may have had as you're growing into the company.
Helena Cowley:
8:44
Oh, there's been so many surprises.
Richard Miles:
8:46
Just give us the biggest surprise. Something you discovered that you didn't know before, you know, assumption that you made that turned out to be completely wrong.
Helena Cowley:
8:55
What becomes really important is that you identify your weaknesses and you do it quickly. So to find yourself in a situation where you say to yourself, geez, I have no idea what I'm doing... it's actually not a bad thing.
Richard Miles:
9:08
I mean it's liberating in a way, right?
Helena Cowley:
9:10
Yes, and you have to identify that sooner than later in order to reach the goal. I mean the goal is really for us to build a company that we can sustain and that we can grow, that can have a lasting impact and that's what we're trying to do and in order to get there, you cannot think that you can do it all yourself. You have to identify your weaknesses and then surround yourself with the people that can help you get there and help you reach the goal. But one of the surprises... we actually recently came from the southeastern section of the American urology association meeting and that was an amazing experience because we had a really good reception of the product. We did not realize it was going to be such a positive and rewarding experience, but the community has been looking for this type of innovation. There hasn't been a lot of big innovation into urology arena for a long time and in particular regarding oxalates, there's really not much that can help with that.
Richard Miles:
10:15
Yeah, that's fascinating. Going back to something you said earlier about toward the faster you identify your own weakness sort of the faster, you can go out and look for somebody who can actually sort of cover that weakness. Just wondering... I mean if you don't mind me saying, you know, you're, you're young for CEO and keep in mind I'm 54 so you can be 52 and you'd be young, but you're... you're definitely not 52. Do you look for mentoring from other CEOs or do you have peers in the business community or the engineering community that you can sort of turn to you and go like, gosh, what would you do in this situation? Or do you have a bunch of friends who are CEOs? Or where do you go to for advice?
Helena Cowley:
10:50
You know, I'm always looking for advice, so yeah, and I feel that a lot of times when people talk about mentors, they automatically assume that it's someone that's older than yourself and it doesn't have to be. In my experience, you can learn something from almost anyone. It's just going to be different things and so I always seek advice I always seek to learn, but I feel that the mentor, mentee relationship is not always someone who is older necessarily. Just because you're old doesn't mean that you're right just as a young person can be right in certain instances, but I definitely appreciate the experience that's needed. So the experience that someone collects over years and years of building a company, that is something that I definitely appreciate and I'm always seeking advice from people around me.
Richard Miles:
11:46
And just curious, do you find advice coming from outside of your industry as useful, as valuable? You know, people or totally different types of companies. Are there general principles that they share that you find insightful for something that's in the bioengineering sector?
Helena Cowley:
12:04
That's a good question. I think it depends on what the question is that you're asking. In some cases it's going to be very related to your particular arena and in particular to biotechnology, but at the same time, you know, there's a lot of challenges that are across companies regardless of the field that they're in. So I think it depends on the question that's being asked.
Richard Miles:
12:28
Right. And we're talking earlier about sort of juggling schedules and responsibilities and you have a two year old son, right? That's right. So tell me a little bit about what that is like and managing a company, having to travel, having to speak often. How do you keep it all together or do you keep it all together? I guess I should ask. I'm assuming that you do.
Helena Cowley:
12:47
Well, you know, as a mother I think you always feel like... you're judging yourself pretty hard, I think as a mother, but the most important thing is that you recognize what is important in life. And I take, if you will, a long view on life. I always start with the end in mind. I want to think about what is going to be important for me on my last day. How do I want to look back at life, how do I want to remember how I treated people, the decisions that I made, how I raised my family, and so then you realize that you always have to take time for family. When you juggle things, what becomes important is that when you have the time, when you're at home, that it's really true quality time because you can spend an hour, let's say, and if you're doing other things, it's not that pure quality time and as long as you are 100 percent focused on... so in my case, my young son, when we're spending time together, that is high quality.
Richard Miles:
13:50
So you shut off the iPhone and the iPad and...
Helena Cowley:
13:52
Absolutely.
Richard Miles:
13:52
put it all away, right? So speaking of family, I mean you've been here since 2009. I'm assuming you're here to stay or is a return to Sweden somewhere in your future. How do you think about Sweden now?
Helena Cowley:
14:05
It's interesting because when you leave your country, you actually. At least that was my experience. I felt like I learned more about Sweden when I had moved because you see it in a different perspective and so you learn so much and I have become a different person than what I was then moving back, may be dIfficult, but it's not something I completely rule out. I mean for now the focus in my life is Captozyme and the business, so it's not like I'm going to move back, but at the same time in our future for the company, we're seeing international expansion, so I know that I will be traveling and perhaps a destination will be Sweden at some point.
Richard Miles:
14:48
It's an interesting point. I've lived overseas at various points in my career as well and you are very much more conscious of your own national identity when you are overseas and when you are at home. One final question, you know, the United States has traditionally been the country of immigrants. How often do you run into other people in similar situation heading up their own businesses here who are from somewhere else?
Helena Cowley:
15:10
It hasn't been that often because now off the top of my head, I can't recall a particular person.
Speaker 1:
15:18
So you've got the swedish born CEO niche category locked up, sounds like... Helena, thank you very much for coming in and talking to us this morning. It's been fascinating and wish you the best of luck.
Helena Cowley:
15:30
Thank you.
:
15:33
Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade museum for coordinating iinventor interviews. Bob Mcpeak of heartwood soundstage and downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy columns for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.