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Former Targanta CEO Leuchtenberger Lands New Gig at Rib-X, Another Antibiotic Company

Xconomy Boston — 

The CEO of a Boston biotech company that crashed a little more than a year ago is getting a second chance in the antibiotic business.

Mark Leuchtenberger, 53, the former CEO of Cambridge, MA-based Targanta Therapeutics, has been hired as president, CEO, and a member of the board at New Haven, CT-based Rib-X Pharmaceuticals. The founder and CEO of Rib-X for the past decade, Susan Froshauer, is retaining the title of chief scientific officer. But her new role isn’t entirely clear, from the information I could gather. When I asked if she will work full-time, Leuchtenberger wouldn’t comment, other than to say there are still “a variety of options” being discussed about Froshauer’s role.

Rib-X (pronounced RYE-bex) will be the next antibiotic developer that Leuchtenberger will seek to transform into a commercial entity with products for sale on the market. That didn’t happen for Targanta. He took that company public in 2007 at a valuation of $210 million, but the firm stumbled a year later when the FDA shot down its application to market a new antibiotic, saying it needed new clinical trials. Targanta went through a mass layoff, and was acquired in January 2009 by The Medicines Company for $42 million, plus potential milestones if the antibiotic ever wins FDA approval.

Leuchtenberger’s new company will certainly want to learn from those hard knocks, as it prepares to enter the final phase of clinical trials and considers whether to test the IPO waters. Rib-X has raised $158 million since its founding in 2000, and has gotten to the point where it’s ready to find a Big Pharma partner to help run an ambitious 800-patient clinical trial of its lead antibiotic candidate, delafloxacin, Froshauer said in a story published last month. Rib-X also has another drug candidate, radezolid, poised for pivotal studies.

Mark Leuchtenberger

Mark Leuchtenberger

“I’m a product guy first and foremost, and as I looked at these two products I don’t think there’s an antibiotic portfolio out there that can touch it,” Leuchtenberger says.

New England biotechies know Leuchtenberger’s name quite well. Before Targanta, he was president and CEO of Therion Biologics, a cancer immunotherapy company that raised $120 million, but, like Targanta, never got across the FDA finish line with an approved drug. Earlier in his career, Leuchtenberger was a senior officer with Biogen Idec, serving as a vice president of the company’s international business. He’s currently chairman of the board at MassBio, and a director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Wake Forest University.

Rib-X has been around a long time because of the promise of its unusual scientific approach to developing antibiotics, which I wrote about last month. The vision is to use emerging technology to get high-resolution crystal structures of components called ribosomes in bacterial cells. This is important because many different classes of antibiotics work by binding with the ribosomes. So by getting precise images, and using a proprietary computational system, Rib-X seeks to identify points where the bacteria’s ribosomes are vulnerable, and where resistance can emerge.

Biotech, of course, is a small world, and that’s how Leuchtenberger got introduced to Rib-X. The company’s executive chairman, George Milne, is a venture partner with Radius Ventures in New York, which previously invested in Targanta.

How will Leuchtenberger handle the 2-hour car or train commute from his home in the Boston area to New Haven? He says he’s already got an apartment in Connecticut so he can be at the office during the week without having to move his home. His first official day on the job is today.

The top item on Leuchtenberger’s to-do list will be to raise capital, whether that’s through a partnership, or maybe even an IPO. How much money he’s able to raise will go a long way toward dictating how aggressively Rib-X proceeds with pivotal trials of its two lead drug candidates.

When I asked what lessons he hopes to take from the hard knocks at Targanta, he didn’t duck the question. He says he learned about the antibiotic market, in terms of what physicians really consider to be the greatest needs, and he got to know what both partners and investors in this niche really want the most. The mega-mergers in Big Pharma over the past year have whittled down the number of potential dance partners who are willing to acquire a company like Rib-X, and Leuchtenberger certainly knows a lot of them.

That said, he also knows that when a business guy takes over for a scientific founder, it can be touchy. This is the third time he’s done it in his career. “It’s important not to lose the critical understanding and relationships that you develop along the way,” Leuchtenberger says.