By Hui Cai, Vice President of Corporate Alliances and Head of Corporate Communications, WuXi AppTec
Kristina Burow has a knack for spotting big ideas in biotech. In fact, the seasoned investor and trained Scripps Research Institute chemist has helped pave a successful path for many ‘big idea’ start-ups.
Since joining ARCH Venture Partners in 2002 , Burow has played a significant role in creating and developing several companies, including BlackThorn Therapeutics, Lycera, Sienna Biopharmaceuticals, Metacrine, Scholar Rock, Unity Biotechnology, AgBiome, AgTech Accelerator and Vir Biotechnology. She was also a co-founder and director of Receptos, which was acquired by Celgene for $7.2 billion, one of the largest sales of a San Diego County biotech.
One of Burow’s latest projects is Vividion Therapeutics, a Scripps spin-out that raised $50 million earlier this year, led by ARCH and Versant Ventures. The start-up, which recently came out of stealth mode, is focused on discovering and developing innovative therapeutics that treat major unmet clinical needs using the first platform for proteome-wide target discovery.
I recently spoke with Burow, who shared Vividion’s powerful platform for drugging ‘undruggable’ targets, and why she believes in funding ‘crazy’ ideas.
Hui Cai: What was the aha moment that brought Vividion out of stealth mode?
Kristina Burow: I have a great love for Scripps. I was a graduate student there and I knew Ben Cravatt, a TSRI scientist whose lab developed the core technology) from those days. I have always admired Ben’s research and took a close looks at some of his previous companies, and when he came to me about a year ago with a scaffold of what he wanted to build at Vividion, we were quite interested. But it took a while to finally grasp all the capabilities of the platform. At the end of last year, we got very excited and put together a Series A term sheet, and led the deal and put together $50 million in financing.
I think there were a couple of things that were really key to the deal. One of them was Ben’s enormously powerful proteomics platform – this idea that you can look across the proteome and identify active sites and work in areas of biology. I hate the phrase but I’m going to use it anyway – “undruggable” targets, or difficult to drug targets become attractable because of the platform. So all of a sudden, you go from really difficult to almost incomprehensible biology to attractable biology with great chemical starting points that are easily modified. That’s an incredibly powerful platform. It’s not just unlocking a novel target but it’s also putting you on the board in terms of a path to a drug. That’s what got me really excited, and I think that’s what got Tom Daniel (the former Celgene president, Global Research and Early Development) excited, who stepped in as executive chairman. So we put this deal together around those different pieces – great biology, great chemistry, a great team, and financed toward those goals of building out a technology platform.
What was the decision to take the company out of stealth mode? We had enough pieces on the board – we had strong intellectual property and we wanted to be outward facing. I think it’s good for the company and it’s great for San Diego.
Hui Cai: Will Vividion be built similar to Receptos?
Kristina Burow: I think there will be things that are similar to Receptos. For example, Receptos started with a very broad technology platform and an internal pipeline. It also started very strong with a strong executive chairman and a great scientific team, but no CEO. I think Bill Rastetter did a marvelous job of leading Receptos up to the point where the company was ready for a full-time CEO and then Bill identified and recruited Faheem Hasnain. And then the chief medical officer and the rest followed. I love the idea of being able to build a company far enough and strong enough as such that the CEO that you get can really take the company to the next level. Reducing the pressure to bring in a great CEO right off the bet by having an executive chairman to lead the company is a great way to add some flexibility.
Hui Cai: How do you manage risks associated with early stage programs in companies like Vividion?
Kristina Burow: There’s always risk. I think today’s environment of drug hunting has the ability to reduce that risk to a certain extent. Step one is defining the target of interest and correlating that target of interest to the diseases state. I think being narrowly focused on exactly who the patient is and being able to identify a therapy that modifies the disease in a specific patient population reduces the potential for drug failure and program failure. You never completely eradicate the risk because you’re talking about human biology. But understanding what exactly a therapy does before your bring it into a Phase 2 clinical trial, modern technology and modern approaches allow us to do a much better job of that than even 10 years ago. I think that one of the most exciting aspects of investing today is the idea and ability to stratify patient populations and target therapies specifically to individuals and individual disease states.
Hui Cai: Besides Vividion, ARCH invested quite a number of very successful startups like Receptos, Unity, etc.., that were originated from academic labs. How has academic innovation and commercialization evolved over the years?
Kristina Burow: It truly has been a revolution over the last 10 years –the access to low-cost sequencing, access to novel technologies like CRISPR, and even access to better tools, and access to CROs. I think that academics working with organizations like WuXi has enabled these groups to push programs farther and has allowed them be on much more stable footing before thinking about out licensing and to have programs closer to a validated point. I think groups like Scripps have become flexible in the academics that they bring in and the way they work with the outside. Receptos was started by three academicians, and the fact that two-thirds of the founders had pharmaceutical ties is just a wonderful environment for students to be in – these former pharma executives who are now on the academic side, unleashing their brain to think creatively about next generation drug discovery. As an investor, I look at that and think, wow, these are really great ideas and the power of being in an academic setting with the knowledge base of pharma.
Hui Cai: Let’s talk about ARCH a bit. Anything unique about its investment strategy?
Kristina Burow: One of the prime things that differentiates ARCH’s strategy from all the great groups out there is we take a look at the opportunity and the science and then we figure out how to build a company. We have no set playbook. So, a company like Juno will go from a meeting to an IPO in 14 months, with hundreds of millions of dollars of capital raised, because that’s what the opportunity demanded – it needed to be public and have nearly a billion dollars in capital behind it. I think another opportunity like Unity that has great science that’s maybe enticing but clear is the science is druggable, in that case, we spent a long time, nearly five years, and a couple of million dollars figuring out that the science was real and that the target and biology were druggable. The science led us to the company building strategy. Unity did not need, nor did it receive $200 million from day one; it needed time to mature. Now that it has matured, as you well know, they’re well on their way – they’ve hired a fabulous CEO, they’ve raised $116 in a Series B, and they’re growing rapidly and putting things in the clinic. We really look at what the company needs and what the science demands and then build a company around that. I think that allows us to look very broadly and invest in great science. We can do an ag-microbiome company in North Carolina and not be the lead investor, yet it’s the coolest ‘Ag’ company out there and has the potential to create dozens of products. I think the academics and founders we work with really appreciate it as well because ultimately what we’re doing is trying to figure out is how to build the strongest company.
Hui Cai: Is now a golden time to invest in early-stage biotech?
Kristina Burow: I think there are three things that have really come together to create a really interesting time in start-up biotech investing. The first is all these different technologies advancing and becoming cheaper and more available. Two, academics realizing and becoming more knowledgeable themselves about using those tools and technologies and thinking three steps ahead about what these programs need to look like. And third, institutions becoming more savvy and giving more resources to their facility to help them think through how to take great ideas and make them into great products.
On the flipside, I’m a little bit fearful of what happens 10 years from now if groups like the NIH cut funding and if there’s too far of a swing for peer asset-based academic research. I would love to see more things fail in academics. I would like to see more crazy ideas get funded, and I worry a little bit that the pendulum has swung too far into the land of every dollar spent has to be spent on a validated idea.
The NIH has gone to these massive grants where one or two people have been deemed worthy. That might actually scare me even more than outright cuts because then you end up with what I call the Facebook phenomena where if you’re not popular you don’t exist. A lot of work that ARCH has funded over the years has not been particularly the most popular, but it’s been the stuff that is really transformative.
Hui Cai: What are some crazy and transformative ideas you are seeing these days?
Kristina Burow: I have seen half a dozen companies in the last week that have some kind of artificial intelligence and deep learning. I think some of those companies will get funded. There’s a ton of interest in those approaches. I do think there’s a lot of power there. I think Grail is leading the charge here, one of ARCH’s portfolio companies. In Grail’s case, they’re looking at a 140,000-patient observational study and looking at very deep sequencing for each of those patients. There’s just an enormous amount of information that will be pulled out and we’ll immediately see why big data become absolutely critical, and being able to draw correlations and pull information out of that data is important. Another place where I’ve seen excitement is in silico development of drug development – it’s a very powerful approach.
If you keep going down the pipeline, clinical trials are difficult to run because you’re constantly looking for great sites and solid patients. So there are some interesting companies out there thinking through patient recruitment using social media. The power of social media can be quite impactful on recruiting patients. The flipside of course is you want to keep those trials clean.
It’s kind of a new era; I tend to be quite careful. I’d like to see how this is going to actually benefit the patient, as opposed to, this is cool and it could benefit the patient.
Hui Cai: What other exciting trends do you see happening in the industry?
Kristin Burow: I’ve always been interested in convergence. Being a chemist, there’s a lot of different places where chemistry touches other industries. I personally think those tend to be the most exiting areas of discovery and product development. There’s so much going on the world that to define yourself too narrowly you miss out on all these great opportunities.
I think chemistry is such a powerful background – you’re talking about creating chemical bonds. It’s literally the definition of life, and being able to push that forward to creating chemical bonds that are the source for energy or for anti fungals or food source or novel genetic mutations or next generation gene editing tools – there’s an infinite list of possibilities once you get the basics. It’s such an exciting time right now; one of my biggest fears is there are just too many interesting companies and deals out there and the ecosystem and the talent pool is getting stretched thin to back all these phenomenal ideas.