After the whopping $7.2 billion sale of his last venture, Receptos, to Celgene back in 2015, Marcus Boehm wasn’t supposed to start another company. He was going to take a backseat, for once. Consult. Be on a few boards.
“I’ve been involved in three companies since founding stages, and I was not intending to do this again,” Boehm tells me.
Now, he and another biotech big shot in San Diego are joining forces to launch a rather ambitious startup, stepping out Wednesday with a $40 million Series A round.
You might know Boehm’s name from his time at San Diego’s Receptos, where he was co-founder and chief technology officer until Celgene’s purchase. Before that, he was at Conforma until it was bought by Biogen. After Receptos’ sale, Boehm had intentions of kicking back for a while.
But then Alain Baron came along, and he introduced Boehm to discoveries made by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Xinzhong Dong. Together, the three of them co-founded Escient Pharmaceuticals, a new San Diego-based company that plans to create an entirely new class of drugs.
Boehm said it was this — the allure of discovery-stage science — that drew him back into the startup game. If it was a company further along in development, he’d have likely passed.
“In many ways, a compound will live or die by its properties,” Boehm said. “Once it’s in Phase II, there’s not much you can affect. If it has toxicity, for example, there’s not much you can do about it. The discovery part is over, and it becomes a highly-orchestrated dance of development.”
Boehm serves as Escient’s CSO, while Baron, the founder and former chief executive of Elcelyx, will head the startup as CEO.
The company hopes to develop a pipeline of drugs around a novel family of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs themselves are a giant protein family of receptors that detect molecules outside the cell and activate cellular responses. If you had to make a wild guess about the target of a certain drug, your best bet is with GPCRs. They make up something like 35% of all drugs on the market today, Baron said.
But Escient has its hands on tech from Dong’s lab on a novel family of Mas-related G-protein receptors, which Baron said have the potential to be a completely new class of GCPR-targeted drugs.
“This is not like taking a known target and making a better drug or bringing another medicine to a disease area that’s already well-served,” Baron said. “We’re actually going to bring very novel therapies to diseases that are unserved — and that’s incredibly exciting.”
Baron and Boehme aren’t disclosing much on their tech, but they did say Escient has nailed down two targets in two indications. The Series A round — backed by The Column Group, 5AM Ventures, and Osage University Partners — will get the company to the end of 2021. Baron expects the company to be in the clinic with one or two programs by then.
In the coming months, Escient will be nailing down office space for its headquarters in San Diego, hiring 15 to 20 people, and filling out their executive team, Baron said.
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