Syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy pi­o­neer Syn­thorx re­cruits Cleave's Lau­ra Shawver for top po­si­tion

Promi­nent biotech ex­ec­u­tive Lau­ra Shawver is tak­ing the helm at Syn­thorx, a lit­tle-known start­up blaz­ing the trail for syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy — a field that promis­es to shake up drug de­vel­op­ment.

Lau­ra Shawver

In Shawver, Syn­thorx is get­ting an ex­pe­ri­enced leader who may be able to take the tiny biotech out of rel­a­tive ob­scu­ri­ty. Her ap­point­ment, which be­gins im­me­di­ate­ly, gives her the ti­tles of pres­i­dent, CEO and di­rec­tor. Shawver’s prob­a­bly best known for her role in snag­ging Cleave Bio­sciences a size­able in­fu­sion of cash with its re­cent $37 mil­lion Se­ries B. The com­pa­ny, found­ed in 2010, is de­vel­op­ing can­cer treat­ments via pro­tein degra­da­tion in­hibitors.

Syn­thorx will like­ly need some fresh cap­i­tal of its own. The com­pa­ny raised $10 mil­lion last Ju­ly to fund pre­clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment in ar­ti­fi­cial pro­teins. Syn­thorx has lofty am­bi­tions of cre­at­ing en­tire­ly new ther­a­peu­tic pro­teins and pep­tides by tin­ker­ing with the col­lec­tion of amino acids used by na­ture to build them. The com­pa­ny’s tech is based on land­mark re­search by Scripps’ Floyd Romes­berg, which Syn­thorx hopes to use to make im­proved pro­tein ther­a­peu­tic can­di­dates (which the com­pa­ny calls “Syn­thorins”).

“We are all stoked to now move to the next phase demon­strat­ing that Syn­thorins can help pa­tients in a way not pre­vi­ous­ly pos­si­ble,” Shawver said in a state­ment. “It is tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­o­gy that we in­tend to trans­form in­to break­through drugs, and I am look­ing for­ward to work­ing with the Syn­thorx team to do just that.”

Be­fore Cleave, Shawver was an en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence for 5AM Ven­tures, CEO and di­rec­tor of Phe­nomix Cor­po­ra­tion, and pres­i­dent of Sug­en (ac­quired by Phar­ma­cia). Shawver has been in­volved with a num­ber of clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment pro­grams in­clud­ing two FDA-ap­proved ther­a­pies.

Jay Lichter

Syn­thorx has stayed most­ly qui­et since los­ing its last chief ex­ec­u­tive ear­li­er this year. Court Turn­er, a well-known ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist at Aval­on Ven­tures, held the CEO job from the com­pa­ny’s 2014 in­cep­tion un­til his de­par­ture in Au­gust.

Syn­thorx is a port­fo­lio com­pa­ny of Aval­on, where Turn­er was a long­time part­ner. Aval­on’s in­cu­ba­tor-like ven­ture stu­dio, COI Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, funds and man­ages sev­er­al biotech star­tups un­der its wing. But when he left Aval­on, Turn­er ab­di­cat­ed lead­er­ship po­si­tions at the com­pa­ny’s port­fo­lio firms as well.

Aval­on’s man­ag­ing part­ner Jay Lichter said the com­pa­ny was on the hunt for Turn­er’s re­place­ment back in Au­gust.

Shawver’s ap­point­ment is some­what un­usu­al for an Aval­on-backed start­up. Lichter’s hall­mark is to cre­ate small com­pa­nies based on promis­ing re­search, back them with Aval­on mon­ey, house them in COI, and lead the star­tups him­self. Some­times an­oth­er Aval­on part­ner will sit as CEO, split­ting time be­tween mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies.

But Lichter said Syn­thorx had out­grown the VC nurs­ery, and need­ed a full-time CEO to take the helm.

“You can’t do an IPO or a big ven­ture raise with a part-time CEO boot­strapped across three or four com­pa­nies,” Lichter tells me. “The tech has had a ma­jor in­flec­tion, and as a re­sult we need full-time A-team tal­ent to run the com­pa­ny.”

I asked Lichter how tiny Syn­thorx at­tract­ed “A-team” tal­ent. Af­ter all, Cleave was well-cap­i­tal­ized and ad­vanc­ing an ex­cit­ing pipeline.

“She fell in love with the tech­nol­o­gy,” Lichter said.


Am­ber Tong con­tributed to this re­port.

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