EncepHeal CEO Aaron Lazarus Among Young Leaders Honored in Triad
Aaron Lazarus, a Wake Forest University graduate who co-founded a biotech company in Winston-Salem, has been recognized by Triad Business Journal’s “20 in their 20s” awards honoring young movers and shakers in the 12-county Triad region.
While a graduate student in the Wake Forest University School of Business in 2014, Lazarus and three other students co-founded EncepHeal Therapeutics, a company that’s developing neurotherapeutics to treat substance abuse and mental health disorders. Today he is the company’s chief executive officer and one of the youngest biotech CEOs in the state.
“Not only is this a win for recognizing young life science entrepreneurs in North Carolina, but also for the focus of his work on addiction,” said Nancy Johnston, executive director of the Triad Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “Aaron’s accomplishment is an example of what we want to further support and nurture -- retaining homegrown entrepreneurial talent from our universities to strengthen and grow the bioscience ecosystem.”
Lazarus came to Winston-Salem in 2010 from his native New Jersey to study at Wake Forest and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and then a master’s in management. He and fellow graduate students Omeed Rahimi, Ayana Martin and Bradley Keegan were finalists in the Neuro Startup Challenge, a competition sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
They and their advisors, Robert Anderson, Peter Sheldrake, and Jessica Beaver, transitioned the academic project into a commercial entity to address unmet medical needs for substance abuse.
“When I had the opportunity to start EncepHeal with my co-founders, we realized that we were in an ideal ecosystem,” Lazarus told Triad Business Journal. “EncepHeal's current best chance for success is here.”
The company is focused on new drugs to combat cocaine and amphetamine addiction and has in-licensed a chemical library of potent and selective compounds developed by investigators at the National Institute on Drug Abuse as potential therapeutic agents.
Nearly 8 million people in the United States need treatment for a psychostimulant addiction, but there are no FDA-approved drugs on the market. “There is a need to develop a new, first-in-class treatment to help these people that have long been neglected,” according to the company’s website.
In support of its work, EncepHeal received a Blueprint Neurotherapeutics Network grant from the NIH this year totaling up to $3.3 million over four years.
In 2017 EncepHeal received a $150,000 Small Business Research Loan from the Biotech Center for preclinical studies of cocaine addiction aimed at identifying a promising drug candidate.
“My initial goal is to work towards developing a medication for cocaine addiction,” Lazarus told Triad Business Journal. “My long-term goal is to be a leader in the biotechnology space and aid in the development of pivotal medications for patients in need of treatment.”
Lazarus was an invited speaker at the Biotech Center’s 35th anniversary celebration in 2019 and has received mentoring support from the Center.
In addition to Lazarus, 19 other young leaders in various fields were recognized in the publication’s inaugural 20 in their 20s awards.