Biotechnology, People, Startups

Ex-Biogen exec Steve Holtzman hears the call of Third Rock’s ambitious Decibel

Steve Holtzman is one of the best connected biotech execs in the Boston/Cambridge hub. He and George Scangos got together and wooed Doug Williams into Biogen as the turnaround team’s R&D chief, with Holtzman heading up corporate development. And long before then, back in the mid-90s, he became a close colleague with Bob Tepper, Mark Levin, Kevin Starr – the founders of Third Rock — and John Maraganore, all execs at Millennium, probably the biggest single biotech executive mill in the big and rapidly expanding hub city.

Steven Holtzman, CEO Decibel Therapeutics

Now, after “retiring” from Biogen last fall, Holtzman — who was the founding CEO at Infinity Pharmaceuticals — is following a trail that Doug Williams took last fall, jumping back to the helm of a biotech startup and beginning the process of turning it into a prominent new R&D organization, this time focused on new drugs for hearing loss.

In part, this was his 24-year-old son’s idea. His motivating comment:

“Dad, you’re approaching the 5th anniversary of your 3-year Biogen plan, what are you going to do next?”

What’s next turned out to be Decibel Therapeutics, a recent startup largely financed by his old friends and colleagues at Third Rock, manned by some of those Millennium execs he teamed with more than 20 years ago.

Decibel got started in style with a whopping $52 million venture round last October. And Holtzman is thinking big about its future.

Today, Decibel is a company with a fairly standard, startup staff of 20. By the end of next year, says Holtzman, it should be nearing 100. And among his first tasks is fleshing out Decibel’s executive team.

“Not all money is green,” says Holtzman, you need traditional VCs, crossovers and others “who share your vision, as opposed to looking for a quick exit.” He’s satisfied that Third Rock has his back on that score.

“The idea of building the 1,051st discovery company didn’t interest me at this point,” says Holtzman.

Decibel, though, was a different matter. Instead of a biotech focused on a pure unmet medical need, he was drawn in by the chance of developing new therapies that could address a range of triggers for hearing loss, from the narrowly defined patient groups whose hearing loss can be triggered by specific drugs, to hearing loss due to an exposure to loud noises, or the simple wear and tear of the years. He counts himself in that last group, and a sister suffering from a profound congenital hearing loss has helped sensitive him to the rest of the field.

With Decibel, the people were right, the money was right and the science was right, says Holtzman. In this case, the biotech is pursuing the role that neurotrophins play in restoring synapses and repairing hearing, with three key scientific founders: Charles Liberman at Harvard Medical School, Gabriel Corfas at the University of Michigan, Scripps’ Ulrich Müller, and Albert Edge from Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

The goal now: “Given that we’re right at the beginning of the whole unfolding story of hearing therapeutics, I don’t see why we can’t be the world’s leading hearing therapeutics company.”

It’s all ahead.

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