Backed By a Billionaire, Berg Pharma Aims to Speed Drugmaking

4/2/14Follow @benthefidler

Even in the brazen world of biotech, Berg Pharma stands out for its grand ambitions.

Co-founder Carl Berg, the Silicon Valley real estate billionaire, says his namesake Framingham, MA-based startup is capable of “revolutionizing” healthcare. President and chief technology officer Niven Narain says that Berg can cut the time, and expense, of drug development “in half.” And the company looks more like an established biotech company than a six-year old startup. It has three divisions, including an in-house diagnostics unit. Almost 200 employees. A drug discovery platform. Programs in cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease in development.

“We see ourselves as fertilizing the Big Pharma community with great, validated clinical assets that can be marketed that are much more safe and effective,” Narain says.

We’ve all heard such claims before. Over the past few decades, scores of companies have sprung up to exploit the latest hot technology, from genomics to systems biology, and most have found the going tougher than they expected. But Berg believes it’s found the secret by putting a whole slew of these methods together. Its drug discovery platform combines elements of biological models, Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence, genomics, proteomics, lipidomics, and metabolomics.

Berg president and chief technology officer Niven Narain

Berg president and chief technology officer Niven Narain

“There are companies that do genomics, companies that do systems biology, who do computational modeling, and who do AI [artificial intelligence], but there’s not one company that’s taken all the elements at play in one complete concentric platform that’s using it as robustly in medicine as we are,” Narain says.

Still, Berg has yet to prove that its approach can produce an effective drug. Its most advanced prospect, an experimental cancer drug called BPM31510, is only in early studies. It has cut a few research deals with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Parkinson’s Institute Clinical Center, all of which are enabling those organizations to tap into its discovery platform to help find disease biomarkers, diagnostic tools, and drugs. But the company doesn’t have the big industry partnership that startup biotechs crave for validation. And many industry observers are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

Eric Schadt, one of the leaders in the genomics field, the director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York—and an advisor to Berg—put it this way:

“I think many of us share that kind of healthy skepticism about how far they’re going to be able to take this, but of course I am a fan because of my own work trying to solve the same thing. That’s why I joined the [scientific advisory board]— I wanted that data. I wanted to be able to see how far we could go with that data,” says Schadt, an Xconomist. “On one hand, there’s lots of literature to support for the approach they’re taking on the integration of the data, the building of the models. But what there isn’t any publication on, is that the predictions made, the therapeutics made, actually achieve clinical efficacy in a human population—and, of course, that’s the money shot.”

One biotech venture capitalist I spoke with did, indeed, share that skepticism. To be clear, while the VC has plenty of experience in drug discovery, the person chose not to be identified for this story due to a lack of deep, detailed knowledge of Berg’s technology. After delving into the company’s approach, the VC says while it’s “totally reasonable…any claim that it is either totally novel or will single-handedly revolutionize discovery is fluff.”

Berg was formed by Narain, Carl Berg (who ran Cupertino, CA-based Mission West Properties), and Mitch Gray, the head of private equity firm Pathfinder Management. Gray and Carl Berg were looking to build a … 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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