Acting President: Steve Gillis, managing director of ARCH
The Scoop: The human body comes equipped with some of the best defensive weapons in existence. Theraclone was founded on the idea that the right kind of technology can isolate those few antibodies that can do the best job at guarding the host by flagging pathogens for elimination. And that includes those rare antibodies that can make some people essentially immune to the most lethal invaders. Once in their sights, Theraclone believes it can use these antibodies to chart a development course to new and highly effective therapies. Pfizer has jumped on board Theraclone's ambitious antibody platform as the discovery-stage biotech goes about the business of creating new programs for cancer and bacterial pathogens. One team effort has even come up with a slate of antibodies that promise to neutralize a spectrum of HIV variants.
What Makes It Fierce: Theraclone was launched 6 years ago at the Accelerator, the birthplace of several biotechs in the Seattle area, and quickly established itself as one of Seattle's most promising upstarts. And the biotech has particularly come a long way in just the last few months. Its first IND has just been approved, pointing the way to the clinic, with a second program close behind. It signed up Pfizer ($PFE) at the beginning of the year as an enthusiastic discovery partner. And with some world-class collaborators at Scripps and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Theraclone offered up a potential breakthrough on the HIV virus. It's also about to top-up its venture bankroll as its acting president--Arch's Steve Gillis, who stepped in after the sudden death of David Fanning--prepares to make way for a permanent successor at the helm.
The biotech's I-STAR platform technology is focused on B cells--the cells that archive the body's immunological responses--so it can identify some prime antibody candidates. It's used that process to find antibodies that can work against a range of influenza strains as well as CMV. In addition, it has taken blood samples from rare individuals who are essentially immune to HIV, and in August announced it had found a slate of broadly neutralizing antibodies that might be used to develop an HIV vaccine.
Japan's Zenyaku Kogyo funded the initial influenza work, and the biotech just got a green light from the FDA to begin its initial first-in-human studies for that program.
At the beginning of the year, Pfizer stepped in with a $632 million partnership to focus Theraclone's staffers on antibodies that target a bacterial pathogen, as well as a number of tumor isolates in an array of cancer patients. Pfizer, which will have development rights for any program it chooses to take ahead, also has an option on two more collaborations.
A down-to-earth Gillis has an intimate understanding of the science that is at play here. At a rather young age, he moved from a faculty job at the renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to start a second career as a biotech entrepreneur--he founded and ran Corixa until GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) bought it for $300 million--and then moved on to Arch Venture Partners. And he isn't known for making over-the-top promises for the companies he supports. So when he gets enthusiastic, you have to give added weight to his words.
"This is a very unique discovery platform," Gillis says in a tone that is both upbeat as well as a little self-effacing. "We tell people--and they kind of laugh at us--that this has the ability to screen the entire repertoire. Any antibody that a patient has ever made we can uncover with 100% efficiency. There's no other platform like that."
Gillis is currently orchestrating several big moves for the company. He wants to put together a new round of about $10 million over the next few weeks and then complete the search for a new CEO. That new money will give the new chief a chance to focus on a fresh round of collaborations rather than fret over the burn rate, with maybe one significant deal coming later this year and another in 2012.
Venture Backers: ARCH Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, Healthcare Ventures, Amgen Ventures, MPM Capital and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.