His way: Greg Verdine is building a new kind of drug, with backing from a different kind of investor
After helping spearhead the launch of a long string of biotechs over the years from his prestigious perch at Harvard, Greg Verdine is now devoting the bulk of his time to leading the effort on growing two biotechs from scratch. And he’s just chalked up a $66 million round to move one of them — FogPharma — into the clinic next year with a new technology he’s convinced can break its way into therapeutic territories that have remained off limits to developers up to now.
FogPharma has been engineering a new kind of therapeutic class, one that combines the cell-penetrating capacity of small molecules with the target-engaging tenacity of biologics into what he calls CPMPs — cell penetrating miniproteins.
The big idea here — if you strip it all down to the chassis — is that Verdine and his crew have developed a structural “brace” that promises to make their polypeptides effective against tough targets like β-catenin. The brace — Verdine’s “secret sauce” — locks the structure in place and amps up its ability to penetrate a cell, zero in on the specific target and maintain a high level of the drug in blood for a sustained period. And he says that each successive iteration of their drugs in preclinical testing has proven better at the big job they’re designed for: drugging the undruggable.
This new money in the B round gives FogPharma the opportunity to take its β-catenin program — which involves Wnt pathway activation — into a Phase I/II program in the second half of next year while lining up an IND on a Cbl-b inhibitor program, with a third undisclosed effort coming up the line. The discovery platform includes “three additional, distinct and differentiated forms of cell-penetrating miniproteins.”
“The entire financing is three-and-a-half years worth of money,” Verdine tells me. Add that to the $11 million in Series A cash raised at three separate points beginning in early 2016, and Verdine has rounded up a total of $77 million for FogPharma.
But it could have been more if he had needed it.
Much of the seed money for FogPharma came from Deerfield and WuXi’s corporate fund, overseen by Ge Li, a man with access to a vast amount of capital around the world. That kind of financing allowed Verdine to create FogPharma without being forced to adopt the short-term tactics of traditional VCs in the business.
“We built the company on a different model,” says Verdine. “I wanted to do this one from soup to nuts. For that reason in the Series A we didn’t turn to venture investors who would come in and have a significant role in building the company.”
Without even a hint of boasting, Verdine believes that with his relationships among elite biotech investors, at this point in his career of developing new drugs, he could raise a billion dollars if needed. There’s an appetite for truly pioneering drug development work, says Verdine, that looks to vault ahead on critical, breakthrough therapies.
He has the resume to back it up. And he’s built a platform company which has the capacity to find and evaluate new targets and prospective new therapies in a matter of months.
It’s no accident that Verdine’s lead program forms a junction with checkpoint therapies; the β-catenin/Wnt pathway disrupts immune responses and an effective push here holds the promise of overcoming initial resistance to immunotherapy as well as the development of drug resistance to an effective treatment. And it’s the first such therapy to make it to the threshold of a clinical trial.
But Verdine is a proud papa to multiple programs, and he is just as excited, if not more so, by the Cbl-b immuno-oncology drug that’s coming up behind the lead.
“What we’ve seen is that these molecules can be tolerable at relatively high doses, with a significant impact on tumor growth,” he says.
Verdine has been a celebrated scientist in the field of drug discovery for more years than many of his students have lived. Along the way, he’s earned some close ties to a new breed of biotech investors who have now come in to back FogPharma and well as his second venture, LifeMine.
The scientist and serial entrepreneur owes much of his success in raising cash to close ties with Asian groups that have become active players in biotech.
Verdine’s experience in China has led him to Boyu Capital — an influential private equity group led by co-founder and partner Sean Tong — and Blue Pool. The Chinese venture group 6 Dimensions Capital came in with other new investors, including Google’s GV, Horizons Ventures, Nan Fung Group and Leerink Partners. Deerfield Management came back with Boyu Capital, WuXi AppTec Corporate Ventures and “a prominent international group of non-institutional investors” to complete the syndicate.
That kind of backing allowed Verdine to build his board with individuals who are all in on his R&D strategy, with Leon Chen from 6 Dimensions, Leerink’s Jeff Leerink, GV general partner Krishna Yeshwant and Rick Klausner, a founder at Juno Therapeutics, joining the group.
The new money will allow FogPharma to grow from 26 staffers today to north of 40 by the end of the year. And it’s still early days.