Kazumi Shiosaki, MPM Capital

Kazumi Shiosaki
Turned an epigenetics idea into Epizyme

Company: MPM Capital
Title: Managing partner

"Hold hands and let's go walk off the cliff," biotech venture capitalist Kazumi Shiosaki says. "That's exactly what you're asking people to do."

When Shiosaki co-founded the hot cancer drug developer Epizyme ($EPZM) 6 years ago, she became the only employee as CEO and undertook the difficult job of convincing savvy scientists from established biotech companies take a leap of faith on her idea for an epigenetics startup. Or get them to follow her "off the cliff."

Shiosaki, a managing partner at MPM Capital in Boston and a chemist by training, succeeded initially by poaching two scientists, Margaret Porter Scott and Ed Olhava, from her former employer, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, in early 2008. Millennium was flying high with the growth of its myeloma drug Velcade, so Scott and Olhava were taking a risk by putting their faith in Shiosaki's grand plans to build Epizyme from scratch.

Faith in Epizyme has been rewarded. The company, whose earliest VC backers were MPM and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, priced its initial public offering at $15 per share in May. The shares have since skyrocketed in value, closing at around $35 per share on Sept. 18, giving the company a market cap of more than $1 billion. Epizyme CEO Robert Gould and President Jason Rhodes have helmed the company since March 2010, when Shiosaki left her executive role at the company.

"What I don't think is appreciated now, because the company has been successful and now we're seeing it at more of a steady state, is just how risky it was at the beginning," Shiosaki says.

Epizyme took off in 2007 after an MPM meeting where biochemist Li Zhang, then at UNC Chapel Hill, discussed his research on epigenetic activities that change gene expression without altering the DNA code. Zhang, who has since moved his lab to Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, has pioneered research on epigenetic enzymes called histone methyltransferases (HMTs) that play roles in cancer and other diseases.

Zhang and H. Robert Horvitz, an MIT biologist and Nobel laureate, joined Shiosaki as founders of Epizyme. In the early days, Shiosaki and her colleagues questioned whether they could even develop effective assays to discover compounds that inhibit HMT enzymes such as DOT1L and EZH2. They succeeded.

Fast-forward about 5 years, and Epizyme has advanced compounds against those targets, including the DOT1L inhibitor EPZ-5676, which entered clinical development in September 2012 as a treatment for leukemia. Last year Celgene ($CELG) paid $90 million up front to Epizyme in a deal that included rights to the compound outside of the U.S. And Eisai has partnered with Epizyme on the EZH2 program.

Shiosaki, who plans to start more companies, gives much of the credit for the achievements of Epizyme to the current executives and scientists who discovered its drug candidates. Yet give her credit for wooing early investors and scientists to bet their money or careers on the startup.

"My skill," Shiosaki says, "is that I can convince people to walk off the cliff."

For more:
Special Reports:
2011 Fierce 15 - Epizyme | The top 10 biotech IPOs of 2013 - Epizyme
Epizyme picks up FDA orphan nod for lead cancer drug as going public pays off
Epizyme scores latest biotech IPO victory to advance cancer pipeline
Epizyme builds epigenetics lineup with $90M Celgene score

-- Ryan McBride

Kazumi Shiosaki, MPM Capital
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