ROME founder Rosana Kapeller recruits a CSO from the senior ranks of a major league R&D team
The phone call started innocently enough.
Dennis Zaller, then the executive director for integrative sciences at Celgene/BMS, rang up Rosana Kapeller back in April to congratulate her on the $50 million Series A for her new biotech, ROME Therapeutics. The two had collaborated a few times when Kapeller worked for Nimbus, and Zaller, doing his due diligence, wanted to see if the new startup could be a fit for a new partnership.
But discussions quickly morphed from a simple how-do-you-do into something else entirely — a job offer.
ROME announced Wednesday that Zaller would be joining the biotech as chief scientific officer. So far, it’s the young company’s biggest hire to date.
“We had just started our search, we had a group of individuals we were doing our research for, we were just starting compiling the names,” Kapeller told Endpoints News. “And then the conversation proceeded into whether it would make sense actually for Dennis to finally sample the other side instead of continuing to be on the big company side … it was really like a total convergence.”
“I knew something interesting was bound to come out of this,” Zaller added. “But I came away from it thinking ‘Wow this is so interesting, I need to take a deeper dive.’ And that’s where things landed.”
Zaller is making the transition to the biotech world after roughly 30 years working for Celgene and, previously, Merck in their drug discovery outfits. ROME boasted in its press release that Zaller had personally been a part of teams that advanced nearly three dozen molecules into the clinic.
The two recalled their first encounter when Zaller worked at Merck several years ago. Kapeller wouldn’t go into too much detail, but they were collaborating on an oncology program that needed to show high selectivity in its data. Zaller helped construct a plan that so impressed Kapeller, she kept in touch with him afterwards.
Ultimately, the key to that mutual effort was the “truth-seeking” process, Zaller said.
“One of the things that is similar in the scientific approach I have with Rosana that came out of these interactions is that we didn’t have a deal yet, but we both, as we went through this, realized it made no difference,” he said.
They focused on: “What is the answer? Whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, let’s just do the right experiments and brainstorm it, because the truth is all that matters.”
Kapeller has brought with her several former colleagues to fill out ROME’s leadership team, as she asserts they all come with proven track records. Zaller’s addition to that roster helps the biotech create a “high-performing culture,” she said.
ROME focuses its research on a portion of the human genome that for years has been described as “junk DNA,” or the 97% to 99% of genetic code that doesn’t code for proteins, known as the repeatome. This segment of the “junk” refers to about 60% of the genome that’s composed of repeated DNA elements and doesn’t code for proteins, Zaller said.
Being able to conduct such studies to try to treat cancer and autoimmune disease takes Zaller back to earlier in his career, he said, when he ran smaller laboratories where he was able to provide an “intense focus” on a smaller problem rather than overseeing a large developmental operation.
And now, too, he gets to helm drug discovery on that “other side” in an emerging field.
“This is still just the beginning,” Zaller said. “Watch this space closely, because it’s going to be interesting.”