Calico - 2014 Fierce 15

Calico
Spawned by tech giant Google, Calico is keeping its doors locked--for now

CEO: Art Levinson
Based:  San Francisco
Founded: 2013
Clinical focus: Diseases related to aging
Website: www.calicolabs.com

The scoop: Take an Internet goliath like Google ($GOOG), add a legendary biotech exec, mix in a pharma operation trying to make a name for itself in drug development and leave out any details about what you're working on, and you have just the right recipe for making yourself one of the most talked-about biotechs in the business this year. Calico at least partly came out of the shadows a few weeks ago when it laid out its first big industry partnership with AbbVie ($ABBV), agreeing to establish a new research center in the Bay Area for up to $1.5 billion that will tackle cancer and neurodegeneration. It will be the Calico team, under former Genentech CMO Hal Barron, who will handle the early-stage work through Phase IIa for the first decade. And one of their first efforts will be a neurodegeneration program targeting preclinical compounds developed at UT Southwestern.

What makes Calico Fierce: Backed with Google's deep, deep pockets, married now to AbbVie and with its first deal on the table--a preclinical licensing pact with UT Southwestern scientists to explore the potential of P7C3 compounds to protect the brain--Calico is promising to build a company from the ground up, with labs in San Francisco, Dallas and presumably anyplace else they may be needed.

Google had only to whisper its interest in biotech to open the floodgates of media attention, and Calico execs are only whipping up more interest by refusing to talk about what they are interested in doing. And we know now that among its initial targets are three of the toughest diseases in drug development: ALS, Parkinson's and depression.

Calico's interest in P7C3 puts it in collaboration with investigators at UT Southwestern who have been exploring its potential in animal studies for years. While Alzheimer's wasn't even mentioned in their announcement, it has been a big theme in the early academic research. And tackling the memory-wasting disease--which has defeated dozens of serious attempts in recent years--would seem right up Calico's alley. The biotech is clearly moving fast to assemble a pipeline of drugs that can be moved into the clinic. But it's also thinking about how it can meaningfully hit some major disease targets much further down the line.

"In some industries, it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Healthcare is certainly one of those areas," Google co-founder Larry Page told Time when he unveiled the company. "Maybe we should shoot for the things that are really, really important so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done."

In addition to Levinson, the company has assembled a core team of highly experienced development executives. Barron was recruited from Genentech, presumably jumping at the chance to work with Levinson again. Academic investigator David Botstein, another Genentech veteran, is CSO. UC San Francisco's Cynthia Kenyon, an expert on aging, joined this year, with former Genentech oncology drug dealmaker Jonathan Lewis stepping in as VP of business development. And at least one high-profile scientist in Boston recently let slip in a conversation that he was advising the company. Presumably there are others as well.

The depth of its bench gives Calico a distinct, early edge--particularly in oncology. Diseases of the brain, and particularly Alzheimer's. present an amazingly complex challenge that has repeatedly stumped the biggest players in the industry.

"The only way any drugs are successful is when you understand the underlying biology you're treating. In cancer, the biology has really exploded," with researchers now able to understand what's happening on the patient level, Barron told FierceBiotech back when he was still working with Roche. Understanding "the pathways which are causing the specific cancer in mind [and tailoring] the therapy to a patient's biology, dramatically enriches the opportunity." 

Don't expect to see these Calico team members jumping into the spotlight anytime soon. As Apple ($AAPL), Google and other tech giants discovered years ago, it's far better to build an air of mystery around R&D, keeping doors locked and windows shuttered on new product work. That's a different world than biotech, where transparency can be an important part of the drug development process. And now these two worlds will collide at Calico.

Investors: Google, Art Levinson

For more:
AbbVie partners with Google's Calico on $1.5B R&D operation focused on aging
Google begins hiring team to lead Calico
Google's biotech plan: Partner with legendary CEO, tackle aging, think outside the cancer box

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

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Calico - 2014 Fierce 15