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.

Biotech in­vestors and CEOs see two paths to growth, but are they equal­ly vi­able?

The dynamic in the biotech market has been highly volatile in the last few years, from the high peaks immediately after the COVID vaccine in 2021, to the lowest downturns of the last 20 years in 2022. This uncertainty makes calling the exact timing of the market’s turn something of a fool’s errand, according to Dr. Chen Yu, Founder and Managing Partner of TCG Crossover (TCG X). He speaks with RBC’s Noël Brown, Head of US Biotechnology Investment Banking, about the market’s road ahead and two possible paths for growth.

Casey McPherson shows his daughters Rose (left) and Weston around Everlum Bio, a lab that he co-founded to spark a treatment for Rose and others with ultra-rare conditions. (Ilana Panich-Linsman)

Fa­ther starts lab af­ter in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty is­sues stymie rare dis­ease drug de­vel­op­ment

Under bright lab lights, Casey McPherson holds his 6-year-old daughter, Rose. His free hand directs Rose’s gaze toward a computer screen with potential clues in treating her one-of-a kind genetic condition.

Gray specks on the screen show her cells that scientists reprogrammed with the goal of zeroing in on a custom medicine. McPherson co-founded the lab, Everlum Bio, to spark a treatment for Rose — and others like her. A regarded singer-songwriter, McPherson never imagined going into drug development.

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Fireside chat between Hal Barron and John Carroll, UKBIO19

It’s time we talked about bio­phar­ma — live in Lon­don next week

Zoom can only go so far. And I think at this stage, we’ve all tested the limits of staying in touch — virtually. So I’m particularly happy now that we’ve revved up the travel machine to point myself to London for the first time in several years.

Whatever events we have lined up, we’ve always built in plenty of opportunities for all of us to get together and talk. For London, live, I plan to be right out front, meeting with and chatting with the small crowd of biopharma people we are hosting on October 12 at Silicon Valley Bank’s London headquarters. And there’s a lengthy mixer at the end I’m most looking forward to, with several networking openings between sessions.

Car­olyn Bertozzi (Illustration: Assistant editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News)

Car­olyn Bertozzi, re­peat biotech founder and launch­er of a field, shares in chem­istry No­bel win

Carolyn Bertozzi, predicted by some to become a Nobel laureate, clinched one of the world’s top awards in the wee hours of Wednesday, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside a repeat winner and a Copenhagen researcher.

The Stanford professor, Morten Meldal of University of Copenhagen and 2001-awardee K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps shared the prize equally. The Nobel is sometimes split in quarters and/or halves.

Take­da to pull key hy­poparathy­roidism drug from the mar­ket af­ter years of man­u­fac­tur­ing woes

Takeda on Tuesday morning made an announcement that almost 3,000 people with the rare disease known as hypoparathyroidism were fearing.

Due to unresolved supply issues and manufacturing woes, Takeda said it will cut its losses and discontinue its hypoparathyroidism drug, known as Natpara (parathyroid hormone), halting all manufacturing of the drug by the end of 2024, but the entire inventory will be available until depleted or expired, a company spokesperson said via email.

Pfizer and BioNTech's original Marvel comic book links evolving Covid vaccine science to Avengers' evolving villain-fighting tools.(Source: Pfizer LinkedIn post)

Pfiz­er, BioN­Tech part­ner with Mar­vel for Avengers and Covid-fight­ing com­ic book

Pfizer and BioNTech are collaborating with Marvel to celebrate “everyday” people getting Covid-19 vaccines in a custom comic book.

In the “Everyday Heroes” digital comic book, an evolving Ultron, one of the Avengers’ leading villains, is defeated by Captain America, Ironman and others. The plotline and history of Ultron is explained by a grandfather who is waiting with his family at a clinic for Covid-19 vaccinations.

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FDA+ roundup: Ad­comm date set for Cy­to­ki­net­ics heart drug; New gener­ic drug guid­ance to re­duce fa­cil­i­ty de­lays

The FDA has set Dec. 13 as the day that its Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee will review Cytokinetics’ potential heart drug, setting up a key vote ahead of a Feb. 28, 2023 PDUFA date.

The drug, known as omecamtiv mecarbil, read out its first Phase III in November 2020, hitting the primary endpoint of reducing the odds of hospitalization or other urgent care for heart failure by 8%. But it also missed a key secondary endpoint analysts had pegged as the key to breaking into the market, failing to significantly differ in reducing cardiovascular death from placebo.

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Valitor CEO Steven Lo (L) and president and CSO Wesley Jackson

A dozen years in the mak­ing, a UC Berke­ley spin­out nabs funds to take on the eye

Largely funded by government grants for the better part of its first decade, a UC Berkeley spinout has secured a new CEO and the funds to take its research into the clinic in early 2024.

The biotech, named by one of the co-founder’s daughters and originally scrapped together with NIH funds in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis, is also on a mission to upend the treatment of wet age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, with an injectable drug that it claims could be more durable than the “800-pound gorilla” in the room, Genentech’s Lucentis and Regeneron/Bayer’s Eylea.

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Robert Arch, OncoSec Medical CEO

Pen­ny stock, Mer­ck part­ner lays off 45% of staff to reach PhII read­out by ear­ly 2023

Another biotech is feeling the chill of the bear market, laying off staff in an effort to preserve cash.

Cancer immunotherapy startup OncoSec Medical announced Tuesday evening it would lay off about 45% of its workforce, or 18 employees, it estimated in an SEC filing. OncoSec made the move to better position the company to complete a Phase II trial for its sole program in melanoma, CEO Robert Arch said in a statement.

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