Sirtris Vet Michelle Dipp Takes Over Key Role at Glaxo as Westphal Returns to VC

4/22/10

From the moment GlaxoSmithKline acquired Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals about two years ago for $720 million, the pharma giant said it wanted two of Sirtris’ principals, Christoph Westphal and Michelle Dipp, to help it connect with some of the best people and biotech ideas in Boston. That’s still true today, although the specific roles for Dipp and Westphal are shifting in a couple important ways.

Yesterday Xconomy broke the news that Westphal is ending his six-year tenure as CEO of Sirtris, the Cambridge, MA-based developer of drugs for diseases of aging, to take the helm at Glaxo’s venture capital firm, SR One. Yet Westphal is also resigning from his job as senior vice president of Glaxo’s Center of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD). Dipp is now being promoted to take on that big job, which involves identifying and managing partnerships with biotechs who can help fill up Glaxo’s drug pipeline. Dipp, who had been the U.S. head of the center serving as a deputy to Westphal, is now in charge of the center’s U.S. and U.K. operations, as Westphal had been.

If you’re older than 30 and still living at home, don’t read the rest of this story. Dipp, who is in Theo Epstein-wunderkind territory at the age of 33, is now the youngest senior vice president at one of the the top 10 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. She’s in charge of the external drug discovery unit that Glaxo created in 2005.The Glaxo business unit has gained more influence over biotech companies in recent years because of the limited availability of venture capital for young startups, making the cash the young firms can bring in from option-based deals with drug companies a viable way to stay afloat. A good example of one of these deals is the partnership Glaxo formed last year with Lexington, MA-based Concert Pharmaceuticals. Dipp says her group oversees about a dozen such partnerships in all.

Dipp, who has an MD and a PhD in pulmonary physiology from the University of Oxford, found her way into the business side of biotech quickly. She struck an important deal early in her career by becoming an early investor in Sirtris while she was a member of the investment team at the Wellcome Trust, a London-based nonprofit that is the world’s second-biggest funder of medical research. At the Wellcome Trust, she got to know Westphal, who recruited her to join then Sirtris as one of its founding employees in 2005.

But Dipp and Westphal have more on their plate than just what they are doing at GlaxoSmithKline. They, along with fellow Sirtris co-founder Rich Aldrich, are launching their own venture capital firm called Longwood Founders Fund in Boston. While the three Longwood founders have declined to comment on the new fund because it is in an SEC-required quiet period, it’s been reported that Glaxo is pumping capital into the venture outfit. And according to an address on an e-mail from Westphal, Longwood has also opened an office in the Prudential Tower, one of Boston’s most prestigious business addresses. Aldrich, a co-founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) and part owner of the Boston Celtics, previously occupied an office at the Pru when the biotech hedge fund he founded, RA Capital Management, had its office there before moving to more humble quarters over the past year.

In an e-mail to his colleagues at Sirtris and others (including Xconomy) yesterday, Westphal wrote that at Longwood “we will found, build and run important new medical companies, as we have been doing for the last decade.” Indeed, Westphal made some savvy investments during his previous stint as a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners, backing such biotech companies as Sirtris, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY), and Momenta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MNTA).

More recently, in 2008, Westphal, Dipp, and Aldrich co-founded Cambridge-based Alnara Pharmaceuticals, which has garnered lots of attention in the drug industry for its late-stage experimental treatment for people with cystic fibrosis. Last year, Dipp and Westphal teamed with Sirtris founding scientist David Sinclair and others to launch the Healthy Lifespan Institute, a Boston nonprofit focused on funding research of how to extend healthy living (as the name suggests). Dipp is president of the nonprofit.

“I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” Dipp says. “I’m a believer in just focusing on your work and doing great deals. I do think that biotech affords young, bright people a lot of opportunities.”

[Disclosure: Xconomy's brand new life sciences columnist, Sylvia Pagán Westphal, is married to Christoph Westphal. Sylvia had no involvement in this story, we swear!]

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