Lycera, a Midwestern Biotech Star, Moves Head Office to Boston, Hires Biogen Vet as CEO

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One of the hot biotech startups from the Midwest is setting up shop in Boston. Lycera, the Ann Arbor, MI-based company with a novel idea for attacking autoimmune diseases, has decided to move its headquarters to Cambridge, MA and is naming a young management talent as CEO.

Lycera is announcing today it has hired Bill Sibold, the former senior vice president of U.S. commercial business at Biogen, to be its new CEO. Sibold, 43, is taking over at a company that made waves last year when it closed a Series A venture round worth $36 million from InterWest Partners, Arch Venture Partners, Clarus Ventures, and EDF Ventures.

The company was founded in 2006 to build on research from the University of Michigan laboratory of Gary Glick. He looked at the landscape of treatments for people with autoimmune disorders—conditions in which the immune system goes haywire and attacks healthy tissues—and saw room for improvement. A number of biotech drugs are effective against these disorders, such as Amgen’s etanercept (Enbrel) and Roche and Biogen Idec’s rituximab (Rituxan), but they and other drugs like them have the drawback of requiring injections and disabling some of a patient’s immune defenses, potentially making the patient vulnerable to infections. The concept at Lycera is to pursue different targets on cells, which make it possible to tamp down the autoimmune activity, without making people vulnerable to infection.

The market potential of any drug that really works for autoimmune diseases is enormous. About 80 diseases fall into this class, with names like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriasis. The conditions collectively affect an estimated one out of every 12 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. Rheumatoid arthritis alone is now a $10 billion a year market dominated by companies like Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbott Laboratories.

Bill Sibold

Bill Sibold

“Even though this is at an early stage, I think Lycera can be a great company that can compete with anybody,” Sibold told me, during a phone interview from the Ann Arbor offices.

Lycera envisions growing up over time from two bases of operation. Ann Arbor will remain the home to the drug discovery team, which is made up of about 15 people, many of whom used to work together at Pfizer before the company closed its research center there. Clinical development, regulatory affairs, business development, and executive leadership is being established in Cambridge, to take advantage of the region’s rich talent pool, Sibold says.

Sibold, 43, has the kind of background that venture capitalists want in an executive, and that is hard to find outside of Boston or the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s got a Harvard Business School degree, and 20 years of experience working his way up at Eli Lilly, Amgen, and Biogen Idec. Sibold was responsible for about $2.5 billion of commercial products in the U.S. at the time he left Biogen in August.

That’s when he started scouting for his first big opportunity to be a CEO. One day he met with Jeff Leiden, a managing director with Clarus Ventures in Cambridge, MA. Leiden is a former president of Abbott, and so he knows more than most about the autoimmune business through his experience with adalimumab (Humira), which has grown into a billion-dollar molecule. He serves on the board of Lycera, and he introduced Sibold to the team at Lycera.

Sibold says he found all the ingredients he was looking for: World-class science, a team of people with a lot of experience, top-notch investors and board.

The company is still very much in its infancy. It doesn’t have any drugs in clinical trials, and neither Glick nor Sibold would offer a timeline for reaching that milestone.

But Glick did say that Lycera has validated two different novel targets on cells in 10 different rodent models of autoimmune disease. The first is made to block ATPase, an enzyme that controls the energy source of a cell. Lycera’s insight here is in recognizing a critical difference in the way this enzyme functions in diseased T cells of the immune system, compared with healthy T cells that people need to fight off foreign invaders like viruses. Lycera hopes to make conventional small-molecule pills that can bind with the enzyme on diseased T cells, Glick says.

Gary Glick

Gary Glick

The company’s other drug development program is aimed at the Th17 pathway, through some technology the company licensed from the lab of Dan Littman, a pioneering HIV researcher at New York University. This pathway is involved in producing IL-17, an inflammatory protein.

A number of other Big Pharma and Big Biotech companies have interest in these same targets, including Amgen and Biogen Idec, Sibold says. Lycera has been approached by a number of partners who have interest in the company’s drug development programs, Glick added.

There will be time to check back later on whether Lycera can live up to all the potential. But Sibold sounded giddy when we spoke during his third day on the job.

“I wanted to get involved at the beginning with a company that can really turn into a great company,” Sibold says. “Most companies bet the farm on a single platform or a single product. Sometimes they aren’t terribly innovative. This is a small company that’s targeting two novel pathways. It’s a unique opportunity. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

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