Eleven Biotherapeutics Dials Up New CEO, Primes Lead Eye Drug for Clinic Next Year

9/22/11Follow @xconomy

There’s a running joke at Cambridge, MA-based Eleven Biotherapeutics. It shouldn’t be a surprise, since the company draws inspiration for its name from the 1984 rock mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” in which one of the dim-witted members of the band cranks up the amplifier to 11, because that’s louder than 10.

At Eleven Biotherapeutics they aren’t trying to be dumb like the actors in the movie, but in true life-imitates-art fashion, they half started cracking wise about how every hire needs to be an “11″ and every new drug candidate needs to be an “11.” So now that Eleven has hired a new CEO and started talking publicly for the first time about its lead drug candidate, you can guess how they are rated internally.

I had one burning question for Eleven’s new CEO, Abbie Celniker, as she was getting started. Was she a fan of “This is Spinal Tap” before she interviewed for the job?

“I definitely was, it’s one of the criteria for getting hired,” she joked. “If you haven’t seen all of the Christopher Guest movies, I’m not sure you can get into this company.”

Kidding aside, a lot has happened at Eleven since I wrote about its big $35 million Series A financing in February 2010. The company, founded by Third Rock Ventures and Flagship Ventures, was led in its early days by Third Rock’s Mark Levin as CEO and fellow partner Cary Pfeffer, as chief business officer. Now that some of the early work is done, Levin and Pfeffer are handing over day-to-day leadership to Celniker and Chen Schor, a former vice president of business development at Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical, who will be Eleven’s new chief business officer. Levin and Pfeffer will stay on the board.

Celniker is a well-known biotech veteran, with a track record in various leadership roles in R&D and business operations at Novartis, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Wyeth, and Genentech. Most recently, she was the CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Taligen Therapeutics, which was acquired in January for $111 million by Cheshire, CT-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

The new challenge at Eleven will be to incorporate a number of technologies for designing various types of protein drugs that can have the precisely intended effect on a given biological target, Celniker says. There’s no single technology platform, but rather a variety of tools that Eleven uses to modify proteins to make them more soluble in the bloodstream, last longer, or get absorbed in an ideal way, Celniker says. The technology should make it possible to swap out certain regions of a protein drug’s structure that might be a liability. And by gathering more information about the biological target and how a given protein drug interacts with it, Eleven is hoping to boost its odds … Next Page »

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