Harvard Professor Steps Down to Pilot Warp Drive Bio

7/2/13Follow @benthefidler

Warp Drive Bio has been laying in the weeds ever since Sanofi, Third Rock Ventures, and Greylock partners helped form it with a $125 million financing in January 2012 and a plan to hit previously undruggable disease targets by tapping into nature. After staying out of the news for about 18 months, the Cambridge, MA-based company added some big names to its board, and shed some light on its future plans.

Company co-founder Gregory Verdine, a Harvard University chemical biologist for more than two decades and a Third Rock venture partner, has taken a leave of absence from the university to become Warp Drive’s full-time CEO. Verdine is stepping in for a Third Rock partner, Alexis Borisy, who will now become Warp Drive’s executive chairman. Verdine says he is on leave from Harvard for “upward of three years,” during which time he is putting “a great majority” of his attention on Warp Drive.

“I will not attempt to predict what happens after that,” he says.

Warp Drive has lured two other big fish to help ramp itself up. Infinity Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: INFI) R&D chief and Millennium Pharmaceuticals veteran Julian Adams has joined its board of directors. And James Nichols, former president and CEO of Resolvyx Pharmaceuticals, has been named Warp Drive’s chief operating officer.

The management shuffling represents the first time Warp Drive has emerged from stealth mode since the announcement surrounding its creation 18 months ago when it was co-founded by Verdine, Harvard University genomics expert George Church, and biochemist James Wells of the University of California at San Francisco.

The deal that created Warp Drive was unusual: Warp Drive secured $125 million in financing from Third Rock, Sanofi (NYSE: SNY), and Greylock Partners that not only gave the company five years of financial leeway tied to various developmental milestones, but also a firm commitment from Sanofi to acquire Warp Drive at an agreed-on price if certain targets are hit.

Gregory Verdine, CEO of Warp Drive Bio

So what would pique Sanofi’s interest in this fashion, and cause Verdine, who has helped found a number of biotechs—among them Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Celgene), Eleven Biotherapeutics, Aileron Therapeutics, and Enanta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ENTA)—to step away from his high-profile, secure day job?

It’s the development of a proprietary genomic search engine that can efficiently sequence the genomes of the microbes hidden in natural substances such as plants and soil. Warp Drive’s grand plan is to use that information to uncover molecules from nature that can hit currently undruggable disease targets, and turn them into drugs that it can either partner with other companies, or develop on its own.

Warp Drive believes using this method to … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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