Former CombinatoRx CEO Alexis Borisy Lands at Third Rock Ventures, Launches New Startup

2/11/10

Alexis Borisy is back in company-building mode. The former CEO of the drug developer CombinatoRx tells Xconomy that he has joined Third Rock Ventures in Boston as an entrepreneur in residence—and he’s already at the helm of a secretive new life sciences firm called Foundation Medicine.

Borisy gave few details on the startup, other than saying that the firm is focused on personalized medicine. He was more forthcoming, though, about his new role at Third Rock, whose team he quietly joined in early October, about four months after officially stepping down from his post as chief executive of Cambridge, MA-based CombinatoRx (NASDAQ:CRXX).

Borisy’s departure from CombinatoRx, a developer of combination drugs that he co-founded in 2000, was revealed in July when the company announced its merger with NeuroMed Pharmaceuticals. Borisy is officially a scientific advisor to CombinatoRx, but he says that he isn’t spending much time working with the company.

He and Third Rock partner Mark Levin have been discussing new entrepreneurial opportunities in biotech for the past year. Third Rock, which was launched in 2007 with a $378 million initial fund, is appealing to Borisy because the firm is focused on backing life sciences startups with the potential to fundamentally improve how certain diseases are treated, he says, and the firm’s members often take active roles at the companies in which it invests.

“When we founded Third Rock, we realized great companies take more than just great science; they require passionate people who share our commitment to making a difference for patients,” Third Rock partner Kevin Starr said, in an e-mail. “Alexis is one of those rare people that has the tools to take a disruptive idea and transform it into an exciting vision for a company that will have a significant impact. He has made a big difference in the firm already and we are all very excited to work with him on our next generation of companies.”

As an entrepreneur in residence, Borisy has an office at Third Rock’s Newbury Street headquarters and spends time with other members of the firm assessing and pursuing opportunities to start or invest in companies. And he places particular emphasis on pitching in as an executive of young portfolio companies, he says.

Borisy’s interests have recently focused on the field of personalized medicine, which he defines as “getting the right therapies to the right patients at the right time.” This can mean developing a drug that is tailored for patients with certain genetic traits, such as Roche-Genentech’s breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), which is only used to treat patients who express the HER2 gene. Another example of personalized medicine could be a diagnostics company that develops tests that show whether certain patients are likely to respond to a particular treatment. Still, Borisy isn’t disclosing exactly what Foundation Medicine is doing in personalized medicine. (He also wouldn’t say whether the startup is raising money or not, but given his current role at a venture capital firm, he probably won’t have to look far for at least seed funds.)

One of the things that Borisy did prodigiously at CombinatoRx—-especially in its early years—was raise venture dollars. The company, which develops new treatments based on combinations of known drugs, raised $90 million in three round of venture financing between 2000 and 2004, Borisy says. During those years, venture firms were investing huge amounts of money in biotech firms, he says.

But times have changed. Many venture firms paid a toll for making lots of large investments in biotech startups, earning poor returns or loosing money when the majority of them proved unworthy of the huge sums invested in them. A big challenge for today’s biotech entrepreneurs is that many venture outfits have moved away from making risky bets on brand new biotech startups, conserving their capital for later-stage companies.

Nonetheless, Third Rock has found ample opportunities in recent years to launch new companies with top-notch entrepreneurs and science behind them. The crop of Third Rock-backed startups includes Zafgen, a developer of novel obesity treatments, Agios Pharmaceuticals, which aims to advance treatments that deprive cancer cells of nutrients, and Seventh Sense Biosystems, which has talked about providing sensors worn on the body to monitor certain conditions. (Luke has previously profiled Third Rock’s investment strategy.)

“It’s the bold thinking, the bold new ideas, and the bold vision to create companies that can transform patient care,” Borisy says. “That’s what I have a passion for, and that’s what Third Rock and Mark [Levin] and the other partners have a passion for.”

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