Follica Gets New CEO, Gears Up for More (Hair and Business) Growth
Follica, the Boston-area startup out to bring a scientific approach to helping hair-loss sufferers re-grow their locks, is preparing for some new growth of its own. The firm, run since its late 2006 inception by founding CEO Daphne Zohar of Boston’s PureTech Ventures, announced today the hiring of a new president and CEO, William Ju, a biopharmaceutical veteran with experience in an array of therapeutic arenas, including dermatology (he is a board certified dermatologist). The selection of Ju seems to position the firm to move out of the purely research-focused stage and closer to becoming a drug development company.
“There’s just a lot of excitement with regard to the science, and to the progress that’s been made,” Ju says of Follica’s work to date. “When I heard about the opportunity, I was really delighted with it, given my background as a dermatologist, given what I think is really breakthrough research.” And he says he looks forward to “bringing the company through to its next developmental stages.”
For her part, Zohar put it this way in a statement: “We are thrilled to welcome Bill Ju as the CEO of Follica. He brings the ideal blend of dermatology and drug development experience, creativity and leadership skills to Follica in this next exciting phase of development.”
What, exactly, Follica’s next step is—and when it will occur—is of intense interest to many of Xconomy’s readers, who struck up an often-spirited conversation on the site after we reported Follica’s $5.5 million Series A round in January 2008 and continued the discussion after the startup’s $11 million Series B funding last August. A lot of the talk in these comments has been centered on a 15 to 20 patient proof of concept study that Follica launched to put its follicle-generating approach to the test. Zohar confirmed the study’s existence last August, but the company has not provided other details on its progress—other than to stick to a general timeline laid out in January 2008 that no results would be available for at least a year. Depending on how you count, and when exactly the trial began, that year is either up or close to being up.
Which might or might not have something to do with Ju’s hiring. When I asked him about the trial, Ju, who started on May 1 and is still getting up to speed, was understandably vague. “The trial is ongoing. The trial is going well,” he says. “Once I get a chance to evaluate that, I’ll have a better sense.” He did add this: “I’ve certainly been pleased with the way things are going…A lot of it is really getting into the details and confirming from a quality perspective what you see with regard to the data points.”
He brushed over discussion of any plans for a bigger trial.
Ju spoke in more detail, however, about other aspects of the company’s progress—including its move to new locations in Philadelphia and the Boston area. But before picking that up, here is some background, in case you aren’t up to speed on the company.
Follica was formed in late 2006 by PureTech Ventures, a venture-creation company that identifies a market need and puts together a company to meet it. In this case, PureTech has claimed that treatments for conditions of the follicle make up a $10 billion-plus annual market. In addition to androgenic alopecia—the extremely common form of hair loss best known as male pattern baldness or female pattern baldness—these conditions include acne, excessive hair growth, and other disorders.
PureTech’s idea was to bring a scientific approach to such problems. Follica was builtaround a high-profile group of researchers that includes University of Pennsylvania stem cell biologist George Cotsarelis, Harvard Medical School dermatologist Rox Anderson, and Vera Price, director of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Hair Research Center, among others. And as I explained in my last story: “At the root of Follica’s approach to hair loss is Cotsarelis’s discovery (made after the company was formed) that when the skin’s uppermost layers are removed some cells within the wound revert to a more basic state from which they can develop into either skin or hair-and that he could actually direct cells in this ‘embryonic window’ to form new hair follicles. Follica licensed that research and has since developed the work further and filed additional patents to protect the technology.”
Cotsarelis’ work is what particularly appealed to Ju, whose most recent job was as chief operating officer of New Jersey-based PTC Therapeutics (before that, he was an R&D executive at Pharmacia and worked at Merck Research Laboratories and Hoffmann-La Roche). “I was fascinated by what I considered the breakthrough science and the tremendous potential of the technology,” he says. “I’d like to really build on that rigorous scientific approach, and then to continue to evaluate it, move it along the development value chain, and then based on that come out with approaches to treating skin that are rigorous in terms of their effectiveness and safety and provide something that is clinically meaningful to patients.”
The new Follica CEO is still working out of New Jersey—and says he isn’t sure where he will set up shop. He could choose either of the two locations where Follica now has operations. The first, in Waltham, MA, houses the contingent of the company that used to work in PureTech’s Boston offices and is spearheaded by VP and head of operations Scott Kellogg. Follica’s research operation, meanwhile, has relocated from the University of Pennsylvania campus—Cotsarelis’s home—into an incubator space in Philadelphia. That branch is staffed by Stephen Prouty, VP and head of research, and three research associates.
“We’ve kept our pre-clinical group down in Philadelphia,” he says, because Cotsarelis is the “heart and soul of the science of the company.”