Constellation Pharma - 2008 Fierce 15

Constellation Pharma 

Based: Cambridge, MA
Founded: 2008

The Scoop: Constellation Pharmaceuticals is a new player in an embryonic field: epigenetics. This new class of drugs promises to play a major role in regulating gene expression. With three of the top scientists in the field providing the brain trust, a solid lineup of leading venture investors supplying the money and a well-known biotech entrepreneur at the helm, Constellation is off to a solid start. 

What makes it Fierce: Mark Levin knows a thing or two about starting a biotech company. 

His resume includes a slate of start-ups that includes the founding CEO role at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, where he added to his reputation as an extraordinary deal-maker. Takeda ended up paying $8.8 billion for Millennium. 

Now a partner at Third Rock Ventures, Levin is taking his expertise in biotechnology and employing himself as the founding CEO of Constellation Pharmaceuticals, which bills itself as the one and only independent biotech now mining the potential of epigenetics. 

The technology is still in the early stages, but a few big pharma companies have been exploring the science; examining the role certain enzymes play in orchestrating the way that DNA activates genes. By shutting target genes on or off, the scientists can play a key role in controlling the mechanism of disease, and Constellation is out to gin a lineup of preclinical candidates. 

Constellation has all the hallmarks of the kind of biotech company that Levin likes: A big platform technology that promises to work as a "very broad product engine." 

Oncology is the first disease category on the radar. 

"Cancer is an area that allows us to do preclinical work and get to the clinic more rapidly," says Levin. "And all the pharma companies are interested in it." With a start-up staff of nine, the company has already selected 10 targets and started screening small molecules that can go forward in the clinic. By the end of this year, Levin will recruit a whole team of senior and junior staffers to take the company forward, using the next two or three years for animal studies and planning to be in the clinic in three to five years. 

Academic collaborations will be struck for much of the biology work that needs to be done. "And then we have begun discussions with pharma companies; these are just beginning right now. Pharma companies have had a tremendous interest," he adds, predicting that the fledgling outfit can forge its first pharma partnership next year. 

Levin is quick to confirm that an early collaboration is likely to produce less money than he would see for a mid-stage program, but collaborations now can gin money without diluting the founders' equity and it also offers an early avenue to tackling other promising disease categories. Meanwhile, the company has $32 million in the bank from a Series A--Third Rock Ventures, The Column Group and Venrock co-led the round--that Levin estimates will fund operations for three years. 

An impressive figure in biotech, Levin has surrounded himself with a circle of equally impressive venture and scientific co-founders. Danny Reinberg, Ph.D, professor of biochemistry at the New York University School of Medicine; Yang Shi, Ph.D., professor of pathology at the Harvard Medical School and David Allis, Ph.D., professor and head of the laboratory of chromatin biology at The Rockefeller University are all on board. 

What to look for: Constellation is a start-up; everything lies ahead. This year, it builds staff and pursues talks about collaborations that may bear fruit next year. But Levin says he's building the company for the long run, so the biotech either makes it big--or not. 

The 2008 Fierce 15 is brought to you by Quintiles

Constellation Pharma - 2008 Fierce 15

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