Outsmarting tumors: Biotech startup maestro Heyman fuels ORIC with $53M round

Rich Heyman

When Rich Heyman finished his second big biotech deal, selling Seragon to Genentech for up to $1.7 billion in mid-2014, he had planned on taking an extended sabbatical from the fast and furious biotech world. But the lure of new startups keeps bringing him back into the game. And this time he's quarterbacking a biotech startup that's exploring some very familiar terrain in the cancer drug field.

Heyman is unveiling a $53 million venture round today that will fuel a long-term effort to build a platform company dubbed ORIC, with a pair of renowned scientists--Charles Sawyers and Scott Lowe at Memorial Sloan Kettering--lending guidance.

"Tumors are basically smarter than we are," says Heyman, who's taking an interim CEO role for himself during the startup phase. And he speaks from considerable experience. In addition to Seragon, he also launched and sold Aragon to Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) for up to $1 billion, largely on the potential of ARN-509, a next-gen anti-androgen drug that looked to follow up on the success of Medivation's ($MDVN) Xtandi and J&J's Zytiga for prostate cancer. Both Xtandi and 509 came out of Charles Sawyers' lab.

Now he wants to do the current crop of androgen receptor drugs one better by targeting a followup pathway that evidently plays a big part in orchestrating resistance to the new drugs.

When you fail drugs like Xtandi, Zytiga or possibly 509, says Heyman, one of the big reasons you fail points to another receptor, glucocorticoid, "a first cousin of androgen, which seems to take over for androgen signaling." And "once glucocorticoid raises its ugly head," he adds, the anti-androgens alone won't cut it.

"We've already started thinking about second and third programs," says Heyman, who says that the game plan now is to build a pipeline for a company that should be around for awhile. Those therapies aren't being announced yet, but they will also be focused on cancer drug resistance.

ORIC Chief Scientific Officer Valeria Fantin

The $53 million round builds on the initial $15 million The Column Group and a small group of investors (Heyman was one of them) contributed to get the company running. The Column Group, Topspin Partners, OrbiMed Advisors, EcoR1 Capital, Foresite Capital and Kravis Investment Partners came up with the Series B for ORIC, which quietly got off the ground last year.

The whole profile of ORIC illustrates a few key trends in biotech. Venture players have been making a habit of backing experienced vets like Heyman who have a stellar track record starting and selling companies. Having proven scientists with a track record of spawning blockbuster drugs like Sawyers on board is another big part of the picture. And the company is being built in San Francisco, a big biotech hub where ORIC has been snapping up top chemists jettisoned by Amgen in its recent restructuring.

Heyman has also been busy helping launch other biotechs. He recently co-founded Metacrine with Ron Evans--a heavyweight Salk Institute researcher and serial entrepreneur who co-founded Ligand Pharmaceuticals, Syndax, and X-Ceptor--and took a board position at the newly launched Gritstone, helmed by Andrew Allen, a co-founder and former chief medical officer at Clovis Oncology.

Heyman isn't quite sure how long this interim CEO gig will run for, but at some point ORIC will need a chief executive officer who can devote a 24/7 schedule to making that happen. 

"In the long term," says Heyman, "our commitment is to find a supertalented CEO who can be there 24/7."

And then Heyman can spend more time hatching biotech fledglings.