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Amid String of Exits for VenBio, a Founding Partner Leaves, Too

Xconomy San Francisco — 

With three acquisitions of its portfolio companies, San Francisco biotech investment firm venBio has had a few good exits recently. Now one of its partners is exiting, too. Kurt Von Emster, one of four venBio founders, has decamped for Abingworth, a life science venture firm with a much longer history and global reach.

Abingworth made the announcement early Friday, but as of this writing von Emster is still listed as a partner on the venBio website.

In a statement, von Emster (pictured) lauded Abingworth’s 40 year track record and called its “multifaceted platform of investment opportunities” impressive. There was no mention of venBio. Von Emster did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Abingworth, headquartered in London, said von Emster will work in the firm’s Menlo Park, CA, office, and work on investments across all stages, from early private venture to public investments, where he has previous experience.

Before he cofounded venBio, von Emster ran a hedge fund at MPM Capital that made public and private investments. VenBio has made at least two investments in public companies. Earlier this year it led a $52 million funding of Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, based in Victoria, BC, with von Emster joining the company’s board. (He is still listed as a board member.)

In 2012, venBio led an attempt to recapitalize and turn around the fortunes of struggling Swiss immunotherapy firm Cytos Biotechnology. It did not go well. After a key trial failure in asthma earlier this year, Cytos decided to wind down operations and is looking to sell its underlying technology. (Abingworth was one of venBio’s coinvestors in the Cytos recapitalization.)

However, Cytos has been the only obvious pothole in venBio’s young record. Formed in 2011 with a $180 million inaugural fund, venBio has had three big exits: The $200 million sale of Labrys Biologics to Teva Pharmaceutical, the $650 million sale of Aragon Pharmaceuticals to Johnson & Johnson, and the $725 billion sale of Seragon Pharmaceuticals to Roche’s Genentech division. (Seragon was formed around a breast-cancer drug that J&J didn’t take as part of the Aragon purchase.) All the deals had milestone payments attached that could push the final payouts much higher.

The initial returns from Labrys and Aragon alone put the fund “in positive territory,” as venBio partner Corey Goodman told Xconomy in June. Goodman also said the activity has spurred venBio to seek a second fund of $250 million to $300 in size, with the same philosophy: “We won’t start companies assuming they’ll have IPOs. We’re assuming M&A.”

Reached today, Goodman acknowledged von Emster’s departure but said venBio had no comment.

The firm has also made a long-term bet on Solstice Biologics, a San Diego startup whose scientific cofounder Steve Dowdy has created a new way to deliver RNA-based drugs into cells that, if successful, could widen the use of treatments in the relatively new field. Solstice is the exclusive licensee of the intellectual property from Dowdy’s University of California, San Diego, lab.