James McCarter’s ambitious entrepreneurial energy was first kindled as a student at the School of Medicine, when he co-founded Washington University’s Young Scientist Program. His aim was to expose kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to careers in science. In the process, McCarter learned a lot about how to establish and run a new organization.
During his medical studies, McCarter, MD/PhD ’98, also encountered outstanding research that wasn’t transitioning into patient care; this led him to reconsider his own path. “I wanted to translate those discoveries to the marketplace, so I shifted my emphasis from academic researcher to entrepreneur,” he says.
After graduating in 1998, he founded his first company, Divergence, which used genome-sequencing information (much of it discovered at WashU) to find new ways of treating parasitic infections in humans, animals and plants.
“Both Chancellor Danforth and Chancellor Wrighton have been enormously supportive,” says McCarter, who got to know both men while serving as a graduate-student representative to the Board of Trustees. “Chancellor Wrighton has really built Washington University into a place where research can be translated into products that reach patients.”
In 2011, Divergence was acquired by Monsanto, and McCarter became an entrepreneur-in-residence for both Monsanto Growth Ventures and Biogenerator, the venture capital arm of BioSTL (an organization that champions bioscience in the St. Louis region). In his role at Biogenerator, McCarter advised several startups, and at Monsanto, he researched hundreds of start-up investment opportunities.
He discovered Virta Health and was impressed by its mission to go beyond conventional type 2 diabetes approaches (toward disease management) and achieve disease reversal. McCarter joined Virta’s founding management team in 2015 and conducted clinical trials that provided the foundation for Virta’s approach.
“We now have data to prove type 2 diabetes is entirely reversible in most cases,” says McCarter, who serves as Virta’s head of research. Approximately 30 million Americans have diabetes, mostly type 2, which is regularly linked to diet and health choices; Virta offers personalized remote care and nutritional advice to patients working to regain their metabolic health. “We do that through cell phone–based monitoring and biomarker tracking, as well as in-app text messaging,” McCarter says. “Patients have a health coach and physician at their fingertips 365 days a year.”
So far, the results have been remarkable. Among Virta’s patients, 94 percent who use insulin either reduced or eliminated usage after a year, and 60 percent reversed their type 2 diabetes altogether (reversal being defined by particular biomarker levels and medication cessation). And these positive results have caught the attention of employers and health-care providers, especially since the average annual cost of treating someone with type 2 diabetes is around $16,000. Today, Virta is working with Purdue University, Activision/Blizzard gaming, U.S. Foods, and Concordia Plan Services, to name a few, and is positioning itself to work with insurers and health plans more broadly.
Based in St. Louis, McCarter continues to work with the university by serving on the School of Medicine’s National Council, advising on entrepreneurship and teaching as an adjunct professor in genetics. Further, McCarter is working with Eric Leuthardt, MD, professor of neurological surgery at the School of Medicine, on a new venture, Neurolutions, to develop brain–computer interface technology that facilitates stroke rehabilitation.
And the Young Scientist Program? It is now in its 28th year, and has connected with more than 10,000 students. Many have gone on to careers in STEM fields, including Reyka Jaysinghe, the current co-director of the program and a doctoral candidate in molecular genetics and genomics at the School of Medicine. McCarter recently made a generous gift to enhance the program’s success for years to come.
“The program continually reinvents itself,” McCarter says. “Over the past 25 years, I have seen the program improve and iterate with each new generation of student leadership.”
— Ryan Rhea, AB ’96, MA ’01, is a senior editor in Public Affairs.