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Chapel Hill startup targets seed funding after working to diversify Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trial

A Chapel Hill startup that helped bring diversity to Novavax’s (Nasdaq: NVAX) clinical trials for its Covid-19 vaccine is in the process of raising $250,000 in funding to help it continue to grow.

CliniSpan Health is actively raising seed funding to grow its team of eight to 20 by 2022, said Dezbee McDaniel, the company’s co-founder and head of business development who earned his undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We are looking to grow rapidly,” McDaniel said.

The company was started with the goal to bring more diversity to clinical trials, and in January the Novavax trial was the first CliniSpan began recruiting for, McDaniel said. About 17 percent of the Black participants at the Durham clinical trial site and 20 percent at the Chapel Hill site were referred to Novavax by CliniSpan, McDaniel said.

The lack of diversity in clinical trials has been an ongoing problem for years.

In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved 53 novel drugs that had clinical trials with a total of 32,000 patients. Of those patients, 75 percent were white, 8 percent were Black, 6 percent were Asian and 11 percent were Hispanic.

“We are heavily focused on African Americans right now,” McDaniel said. “We want to expand to groups who are Latinx, Native American, rural, women – a lot of other diverse groups who also need access to clinical trials.”

For now, the company is focusing on one population at a time, McDaniel said, because each group has a different history with the medical system and different preferences for how they want to be communicated with.

“With African Americans, the past mistreatment by the health care system is what we have to overcome and that’s something we haven’t directly affected, so it’s difficult to have that conversation sometimes,” McDaniel said.

Having people who reflect those groups do the outreach and recruitment helps make people more comfortable in participating, he said.

The transition to more decentralized trials also helps, McDaniel said.

“If people don’t have to show up physically and they can do it from home, then access for us becomes that much easier of a goal to achieve,” he said.

In addition to the Novavax trial, CliniSpan has partnered with Curavit, a fully virtual clinical trial organization, which perfectly complements CliniSpan’s infrastructure, McDaniel said.

CliniSpan has also signed a licensing agreement for its software with Capstone Health Alliance, a group purchasing organization for hospitals, he said.

“That’s something we’re trying to grow outside of our recruitment services,” McDaniel said. “We’re trying to help other diversity recruitment arms have technological infrastructure to carry out their processes more effectively.”

At the same time, CliniSpan will be helping to recruit for studies that its hospital network participates in, McDaniel said.

CliniSpan, which is led by founder and CEO Dr. David Lipsitz who did his residency at UNC-Chapel Hill, is currently working with five businesses in total and is generating revenue, though McDaniel did not disclose how much.

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