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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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