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Ex-Alnylam Exec to Steer Warp Drive Bio; Verdine Shifts Roles

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated, 3/5/15, 3:56 pm ET] Gregory Verdine left a tenured position at Harvard University last year to lead a Cambridge, MA, startup trying to derive new drugs from the microbes in plants and dirt. Today Verdine is handing the reins of Warp Drive Bio over to Laurence Reid, the former chief business officer at nearby Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.

This doesn’t mean Verdine is heading back to Harvard, however. In an announcement this morning, Warp Drive says that he has shifted his role to president, chief scientific officer, and chairman of the company’s scientific advisory board. Verdine will also stay on Warp Drive’s board and remain a venture partner at Third Rock Ventures.

Verdine helped found Warp Drive in 2012 along with Harvard genomics expert George Church and biochemist James Wells of the University of California at San Francisco. It launched with a splash; $125 million from Third Rock Ventures, Greylock Partners, and Sanofi that gave the company a five-year financial leash, and a commitment from the French pharma giant to buy Warp Drive at an agreed-upon price if certain targets are hit.

The big idea at Warp Drive is to develop a “genomic search engine” that can quickly scan the genomes of the microbes in natural substances like plants and soil. Using that information, Warp Drive aims to uncover molecules from nature that can hit currently undruggable targets.

Warp Drive has been relatively quiet about its progress. It has only come up for air once—to announce, in July 2013, that Verdine would take over for Third Rock partner Alexis Borisy and be its full-time CEO.

Verdine told Xconomy at the time that he was taking a leave of absence from Harvard for “upwards of three years” and that he’d put “a great majority” of his attention on Warp Drive. In doing so, he’d made a deal with Harvard officials to keep running his 15-person lab at the university on a part-time basis, and then come back to Harvard as a ‘professor of the practice’—an untenured professor who works on a five-year renewable contract. The idea was to lead Warp Drive “through its next phase of development.”

Gregory Verdine, CEO of Warp Drive Bio

Gregory Verdine

Here’s what he told our former colleague Luke Timmerman at the time:

“[W]e got a year and a couple months into the life of the company, and the prospect is to bring on board a CEO. As we began interviewing people and looking at people, I realized it still felt too early to bring on board a CEO. The company was still vulnerable in a sense…It still felt to me, that in the Third Rock model, Alexis Borisy was running the company with me. We had a fantastic partnership. But he’s a partner at Third Rock, and he eventually has to go back to being a partner at Third Rock. So I looked at it, and thought the risk to the company, No. 1, was unacceptably high. I had put so much into it, and it just so happened that I knew I had a sabbatical coming up. I knew I could take a year, at least, and yet, Third Rock and Elias [Zerhouni, Sanofi R&D chief], in order for me to take the CEO job, they wanted—understandably—a commitment of longer than a year.”

[Updated with comment from Verdine] It’s unclear whether Warp Drive has simply made it to that next phase and Verdine bridged the gap, or if the news speaks to something else. Verdine said via e-mail on Friday that the move enables him to “focus on the science” at the company.

“Warp Drive has made tremendous progress in the past two years,” he wrote to Xconomy. “The addition of Laurence—while I continue to focus on the science, which is my passion—will allow us to take full advantage of the broad science and business opportunities available through our platform.”

Alnylam (NASDAQ: ALNY), however, gave some clues that this move was coming back in December when Reid left the company. In a statement at the time, Alnylam said Reid would join Third Rock as an entrepreneur-in-residence and was “expected to become the [CEO] for a [Third Rock] portfolio company in the future.”

In addition to his work with Warp Drive, Verdine has helped found a number of biotechs, among them Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Celgene), Eleven Biotherapeutics, Aileron Therapeutics, Enanta Pharmaceuticals, and WaVe Life Sciences.

Reid, meanwhile, is coming off business development stints at Alnylam and before that, Ensemble Therapeutics. He spent a decade at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in a variety of management and BD roles.

“Warp Drive Bio’s pioneering natural products platform is transforming the discovery of ‘nature’s’ drugs, which have the potential to solve problems that have confounded the industry over many years,” Reid said in a statement. “Under Greg’s leadership, Warp Drive has established an extraordinary discovery team building a distinctive and powerful drug discovery engine. I look forward to working with him and the rest of the Warp Drive Bio team to help the company realize its bold vision.”