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To Fight Cramps, Christoph Westphal Taps Boston All-Stars for $40M

Xconomy Boston — 

Serial biotech executive Christoph Westphal looks to have found his latest target: muscle cramps.

Westphal, perhaps best known as the one-time CEO of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, is now chairman and CEO of a new startup called Flex Pharma. He’s gone through the rolodex to put together $40 million in private financing from a diverse list of big-name investors: venture firms, biotech executives, even the owners of the Hub’s local sports teams.

Among Flex’s backers are Westphal’s own venture fund (Longwood Fund): VC firms such as Lightstone Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, City Hill Ventures, and EcoR1 Capital; the owners of two of Boston’s professional sports teams (the Kraft Group, owned by Patriots owner Bob Kraft; and Celtics CEO and managing partner Wyc Grousbeck); former Apple CEO John Sculley and his wife Diane; and current Alnylam Pharmaceuticals CEO John Maraganore.

Flex officials couldn’t be immediately reached for comment late Monday, and it hasn’t divulged much information, but it bills itself as a developer of drugs for neuromuscular disorders and says it’s advancing a treatment to prevent muscle cramps. One of Flex’s scientific founders, Harvard Medical School professor Bruce Bean, says in a video on the company’s site that the company is looking at treatments for “all forms of muscle cramps,” including those experienced by athletes, elderly folks who get cramps at night, and those attributed to diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis.

For cramps brought on by disease, Flex appears to be developing prescription drugs. For athletes suffering from cramps, the targeted product seems to be medical foods.

The general idea, according to the website, is to stimulate nerve endings in the mouth and esophagus, which should affect the activity of alpha motor neurons in the spinal cord. Those are the neurons responsible for muscle contractions that cause cramps when they excessively fire.

Flex says it’s basing its products on new research that shows that cramps begin in the nerves, not the muscles. Therefore it claims most common remedies like bananas and sports drinks don’t usually work. The company says it will reveal data from two small studies testing its theory at a future medical meeting, and that it plans to run efficacy studies in 2015.

Christoph Westphal is chairman and CEO of Verastem

Christoph Westphal

Westphal founded the company with Rockefeller University professor Roderick MacKinnon (who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for work he did in ion channel activation), Bean, and former Sirtris colleague Jennifer Cermak, the vice president of program management at the company. Longtime Westphal comrades Rich Aldrich and Michelle Dipp (now the CEO of OvaScience) are listed as advisors, along with Maraganore, and Bain Capital and Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca.

It’s no surprise that Flex has raised cash from such big-name sources with Westphal at the helm. He helped found companies like Alnylam (NASDAQ: ALNY), Momenta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MNTA), Acceleron Pharma (NASDAQ: XLRN), and Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM) all of which are now publicly traded. He also founded and ran Sirtris, the controversial anti-aging biotech firm that GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) bought in 2008 for $720 million (and later shuttered in 2013).

Westphal began his entrepreneurial career at Polaris Partners in 2000, the platform for several of his startups. After the Sirtris sale, he stayed on at GSK to run its SR One venture arm, then stepped down to start the Longwood Fund with Dipp and Aldrich. He stepped down as Verastem’s CEO in June 2013, but remains the company’s executive chairman and is still a major stockholder.