One of Seattle’s leading life sciences entrepreneurs, Bruce Carter, is back in the saddle. Carter has agreed to take an active management role as executive chairman of Seattle-based Immune Design, a year after he announced he was retiring as CEO of ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN).
Carter has agreed to work about three days a week at the startup vaccine developer as executive chairman, while co-founder Steve Reed will stay as full-time CEO. Carter’s top three goals are to bring in “money, money, and more money,” he says, by tapping his global network of investment and pharma industry contacts who might be interested in what Immune Design has started, he says.
“I got seduced by the science and the idea of learning something new,” Carter says. He added: “I was a little afraid I’d get bored.”
The addition of Carter is just the latest in a string of big names who have aligned themselves with Immune Design. The company got started in June 2008 with an $18 million venture financing led by Rick Klausner of The Column Group, Ed Penhoet of Alta Partners, and Brian Atwood of Versant Ventures. They bet on technology from the Caltech lab of David Baltimore and Reed’s team at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle. The vision is to create the first generation of vaccines that can be designed to stimulate specific cell types needed to prevent an illness, fight off an existing infection, or possibly even kill tough cancer cells.
As many people in Seattle biotech know, Carter is one of the big personalities of the local cluster. He is the British-born microbiologist who is essentially the founder of the modern version of ZymoGenetics. He first joined the company in 1986, and later oversaw the operation when he became chief scientific officer of Novo Nordisk, which acquired Zymo in 1988. He led ZymoGenetics’ transformation from a U.S. research wing of Novo into a standalone private company in 2000, and then took Zymo public in 2002. He retired on Jan. 1 of this year.
Since then, Carter has stayed busy through serving as chairman of ZymoGenetics; as a director of India-based Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, a generic drugmaker; and of the nonprofit TB Alliance. At first, he wasn’t really that interested in joining the board of Immune Design.
“I got a call from the chairman of the board, Ed Penhoet, and he asked me, ‘How are you enjoying your retirement?” Carter says. “I told him, ‘I’m really enjoying it, I haven’t been bored a single day.'”
Even so, Carter agreed to listen to Penhoet’s proposal about Immune Design. The two have known each other for more than two decades dating back to when Carter was at Novo and Penhoet was one of the biotech industry’s pioneers at Chiron. Carter says he was impressed by the group of people who have coalesced around the new company. “There were some heavy hitters involved,” Carter says.
But vaccines were out of Carter’s comfort zone, so he has had to learn some new things.
Carter says he plans to concentrate on external partnership talks and fundraising for Immune Design. Carter will use some of his business experience to help “do a little organizing” of the staff, which stands now at 19 people, he says.
The idea at Immune Design is to build on two main technologies from Caltech and IDRI. One is a delivery system, known as a lentivirus vector, from Baltimore’s lab at Caltech. That new tool makes it possible to precisely stimulate dendritic cells, which are known for sending sentinel warning signals about pathogens to other cells of the immune system. The other component from Reed’s lab at IDRI is a synthetic compound called an adjuvant which is used to boost the effectiveness of existing vaccines. Combining the adjuvants with the delivery system offers an opportunity to trigger highly potent, more specific immune responses in the body than vaccines from the past, Rick Klausner said in an August interview.
Carter wasn’t ready when we talked Friday to provide an update on what kind of evidence the company has assembled to support this concept, but he did say to stay tuned. He says he sees a lot of potential, noting that Seattle-based Corixa, the company Reed co-founded in 1994, was acquired by GlaxoSmithKline in 2005 for more than $300 million largely because of a previous-generation adjuvant called MPL.
The timing may also be ripe. Public health officials lately have shown some renewed interest in adjuvants, because they can make vaccines more potent in the case of a flu pandemic, like the current outbreak of H1N1. That’s important because a successful adjuvant would allow people to get inoculated with smaller doses, meaning that health officials could immunize far more people without having to spend huge amounts of time and money building new vaccine factories.
This has all captured Carter’s interest to the point where he’s busy again. I asked him if he ever really got around to gardening, and getting back in shape, like he intended last November. The answer is yes. “I just put my daffodil bulbs in for next spring, and I’m happy to say I’ve lost 15 pounds,” he says. He’s done a little rowing, and lifts weights four or five times a week. “I don’t have a six-pack, but I think I have a two-pack,” he joked.
On a more serious note, he said one of the things that made him hesitate about Immune Design was whether it would interfere too much with his new schedule, one that had room for exercise. But he says he’s figuring out a way to balance it all in a way that’s stimulating for mind and body.
“This looks to me like one of the most interesting things in town,” Carter says.
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