Prolific Harvard chemist Greg Verdine takes helm at Warp Drive

Professor Gregory Verdine has founded plenty of biotech companies, but Warp Drive Bio has become the first one he has ever helmed as CEO. After co-founding Warp Drive, which launched last year to discover natural product drugs, Verdine has taken over the chief executive role from Third Rock Ventures partner Alexis Borisy.

Based on Verdine's original scientific idea, Warp Drive took off last year with a $125 million financing deal to mine bacterial genomes for drug compounds. Sanofi signed on as a funder and collaborator from the start, helping Third Rock and Greylock Partners to finance the drug-discovery effort. Borisy, who Verdine credits for the business plan behind Warp Drive, has become the startup's executive chairman.

A chemistry professor at Harvard University for 25 years, Verdine has been deeply involved in the scientific end of the biopharma industry. He has served as a leading consultant to the Swiss drug giant Roche ($RHHBY) and in recent years as a venture partner at Third Rock, which has raised more than $1.3 billion to invest in and form life sciences startups. Verdine joined forces with Third Rock to found Eleven Biotherapeutics and Warp Drive, building on his founder credentials from past biotech companies such as Aileron, Enanta, Gloucester, Ontorii and Tokai.

Yet being CEO of Warp Drive gives Verdine a whole new perspective on drug research.

"People had told me before and described how different science is in a company setting or in a biotech setting from an academic setting," Verdine told FierceBiotech. "I've founded a number of companies and had it described to me. But I have to say, it's not until you really live it do you appreciate the power of team science. It's exhilarating."

Warp Drive has embraced DNA sequencing and a host of advanced technologies to hunt for drugs. However, its name belies what amounts to a journey back to earth for pharma. Know the smell of fresh soil? The odor comes from dirt bacteria known as actinomyces, Verdine says. The bacteria have the potential to serve as pharma factories, but instructions for producing many druglike compounds hide in the genetic codes of the microbes.

The Cambridge, MA-based startup searches for those instructions or "signatures" in the genetic code. The company has had the genomes of more than 50,000 microbes sequenced, and researchers from the firm have identified dozens of compounds that could directly impact novel disease targets to treat a wide range of illnesses. Its lead compound targets an undisclosed component of cell-division machinery involved in cancer and other diseases, Verdine says. The startup aims to begin animal testing within months.

Verdine has taken a leave of absence from his job at Harvard to lead Warp Drive toward clinical development. Warp Drive could help lead a revival of natural-product discovery in pharma, which owes major drugs such as Lipitor and metformin to natural sources. Some pharma companies have steered away from natural products in favor of fully synthetic chemistry. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Novartis ($NVS) and Sanofi ($SNY) are among those with active efforts in this area of renewed interest in pharma, however.

Warp Drive aims to provide Sanofi and other pharma players with a host of new natural product compounds through partnerships, Verdine says. "There's not any natural product company that is doing what we're doing," he notes. "What pharma has decided to do is they are coming to us to access natural products." 

-- Ryan McBride (email | Twitter)

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