Entrepreneur Matthew Kim keeps a photo of his smiling parents on his desk. It’s the only photo his mother likes.
The photo was taken in better times for the family. In March, his father, Kyung Sang Kim, died at age 79 after surviving oral and other cancers for 15 years.
His mother, Yun Kun Kim, is a five-year survivor of oral cancer. His parents’ struggle with the disease inspired Kim to start Vigilant Biosciences, which is developing an early cancer-detection test for oral cancer.
“I felt so helpless because she was going through such an aggressive battle,” said Kim, 42, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Seoul, Korea, when he was 6.
“She’s a fighter,” he said of his mother, who has been cancer-free for five years — a significant survival mark for a cancer patient.
Vigilant Biosciences recently opened a new headquarters in Fort Lauderdale and is getting ready to launch its early-detection product for oral cancer risk called OncAlert. Kim hopes the two-product system eventually will be used routinely by dentists, primary care doctors and physician assistants.
Kim said he gets his entrepreneurial spirit from his father. With degrees in law and biology, Kim has been a business and legal executive as well as an entrepreneur.
Last week, state industry association BioFlorida recognized Kim with its Weaver H. Gaines Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Kim is pleased but almost embarrassed to show the globe statue. As a Korean-American, he was raised to be humble, he explained.
But he does like to talk about his product, OncAlert. It is a simple test using a patient’s saliva. After a saline rinse, a patient spits into a cup. The OncAlert is inserted into the saliva and less than 15 minutes later, a colored line appears to indicate the risk level. If positive, a more extensive test is sent to a lab.
The test was developed as a result of the 15 years of scientific research by Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann, a University of Miami faculty member who now is chief science officer for Vigilant. Franzmann, a surgeon, has studied more than 1,000 patients with oral cancer.
She treated patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where she saw patients whose malignancy had advanced and they had only a 30 percent chance to survive five years. “It was really frustrating to see patients with big tumors,” Franzmann said.
But if oral cancer is caught earlier, there’s a 90 percent chance of survival, she said. While genetics play a part, patients who stop smoking and drinking and eat healthier can reduce their risk of the disease occurring or advancing, she and other health experts say.
In her research, Franzmann identified certain protein markers, or risk factors, that align with the disease. Kim, who was living in Atlanta at the time, discovered her work in a Google search and contacted her.
Dr. Linda Niessen, dean of the College of Dental Medicine at Nova Southeastern University, serves on Vigilant’s board. She joined Vigilant’s board because of Franzmann’s research — “she’s just fabulous,” Niessen said. She also sees a big need for the product.
Oral cancer “is a devastating, dehabilitating disease,” said Nieseen, a dentist who specializes in geriatric dentistry and has seen the effects first hand. “You can’t eat, speak. You can’t smile,” she said.
Vigilant expects to launch its product in Europe, where it is completing its product certification. The company already has exclusive distribution deals in France, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — even before receiving regulatory approval.
Vigilant hopes to be able to offer its early-detection test in the U.S. by 2017.
Kim also sees India, where people grow up chewing tobacco, and China, where smoking has become prevalent, as major markets for OncAlert.
Because the research was done at the University of Miami, which holds the patents, the university is now an equity shareholder in Vigilant.
To help the company raise money, Florida’s Institute for Commercialization of Public Research initially gave $300,000 to be matched by private investors. Vigilant has leveraged that, raising $8 million from investors that include White Owl Capital Partners in New York; early-stage venture fund venVelo in Winter Park; and individual dentists and surgeons.
“We support and fund companies that spin out of university technology,” said Jane Teague, chief operating officer for the Institute, which has invested in 43 Florida companies. “We look at the same things as angel investors: good management; deep market opportunity; a product that has potential to be adopted in the marketplace; and a big market for an unaddressed need.”
Kim said his investors are not pressing him toward an exit strategy, such as a sale or initial public offering. There’s still much to be done to market OncAlert, and the company has additional products in its plans.
He has learned, through an earlier entrepreneurial experience, that he cannot please all stakeholders. What’s important, Kim says, is “to stay true to your vision.”