Versant woos MorphoSys' ex-CSO to its booming discovery engine, with big plans for new startups
As MorphoSys celebrated the FDA’s acceptance of its first-ever BLA — complete with a priority review that could lead to a quick OK for its CD19-targeted CAR-T rival — last Monday, former CSO Markus Enzelberger was marking a different milestone of his own.
It was his first day at Versant Ventures’ discovery engine in Basel, a change of scenery after 18 years as the German biotech’s chief scientist. Newly named entrepreneur-in-residence of Ridgeline Therapeutics, Enzelberger expects to spend half of his time evaluating new opportunities for company creation and the other half helping biotech fledglings in the portfolio build the necessary infrastructure.
“I’m a technology guy,” he said. “I’ve always been getting new technologies off the ground.”
Wooing Enzelberger was part of the growth Versant has in mind for Ridgeline. Guided by Alex Mayweg — a Basel-based partner who’s just been promoted to managing director — the 3-year-old operation has already seen its first spinout, Black Diamond Therapeutics, make a $200 million Nasdaq debut and hot start to 2020.
Enzelberger also replaces Roberto Iacone, the EIR who was involved in Black Diamond but has decamped for Arix Bioscience in London.
The team of scientists working in the wet labs will grow from 40 to 60 by 2022, which will help double the company building capacity from 1 to 2 per year.
“It’s very important to us that we’re one of the few US venture firms that are fully embedded in Europe for well over a decade,” said Brad Bolzon, Versant chairman and managing director.
While Basel — home to Novartis and Roche — has long been known for its supply of pharmaceutical talent and access to world-class academic research, the spirit of entrepreneurialism didn’t start growing until recently.
Two new Ridgeline startups are already in the works: Monte Rosa works with leading researchers of cereblon reprogramming from London and Basel to develop protein degradation therapies, while Bright Peak Therapeutics boasts of a chemistry-enabled platform that “gives us control to make whatever modifications we want, wherever we want to on the protein backbone,” according to managing director Tom Woiwode.
“Brad and I still remember when we went over there and opened up that office in Basel to try to initiate our European investment practice, most people told us we were nuts,” Woiwode said.
But Versant now believes it’s proved the doubters wrong, so much so that Woiwode can safely put the Basel office in Mayweg’s hands and relocate back to the West Coast, which Bolzon still views as their anchor region.
They’re also making a move in the buzzing hub of Boston, where Markus Warmuth — the former CEO of H3 Biomedicine and one-time entrepreneur-in-residence at Third Rock Ventures — has been working as a venture partner. Warmuth is also the CEO of Monte Rosa and will help move the company to the city.
Meanwhile at Inception — the US equivalent of Ridgeline — Versant has tapped Richard Glynne as CSO of the San Diego site, entrusting him with key responsibilities in launching another protein degradation player. Dubbed Lycia Therapeutics, the biotech will leverage discoveries by Stanford’s Carolyn Bertozzi around extracellular proteins. In Montreal, Marcelo Bigal is taking the helm of innate immunity-focused Ventus Therapeutics.
All of it points to the importance of company creation, Bolzon said, which currently accounts for 30% of its investments but is expected to go over 50%. Compared to the 5.2X average return multiple among all of its 16 exits, Versant-launched entities delivered 7.1X average return.
“Our model is three-fold: going after breakthrough science, having the geographic reach to source the best opportunities wherever they can be identified, and number 3, having these unique company creation capabilities,” he added. The new moves are “entirely consistent with just building off that.”