In early 2012, Warp Drive Bio raised $125 million, much of it from one of the world’s largest pharma companies. The selling point was a bold but unproven idea.
The Cambridge startup’s plan was to reinvent the process for discovering naturally derived compounds. The goal: to find a large number of new compounds across a range of therapeutic areas, including cancer, and find them in relatively short order (at warp speed, you might say).
Two years later, “that idea has held up in every significant way,” said company founder and chief executive Gregory Verdine. Dozens of new compounds that could eventually become drugs have been discovered already, and Warp Drive Bio now has a good chance of getting its first products into clinical trials by next year, he said.
Based on that early success, he said, the company expects to rework the arrangement it has with its big-pharma investor, Sanofi-Aventis.
Under the original deal, Warp Drive Bio would be sold to Sanofi after five years if it produced a certain number of compounds during that period. But it’s now more likely Warp Drive will remain a standalone company to capitalize on the larger-than-expected opportunity, Verdine said. The booming biotech IPO market also is a factor in the thinking, he said.
It wouldn’t be Verdine’s first taste of biotech success — far from it. He’s founded a half-dozen notable companies, including Gloucester Pharmaceuticals (acquired for $640 million in 2009), Enanta Pharmaceuticals (IPO in 2013), and Eleven Biotherapeutics (IPO in February).
But Warp Drive is the first company able to pull Verdine away from Harvard University. He was a longtime professor there until he became chief executive of Warp Drive in July.
“This is the one that could really transform medicine,” Verdine said of the company.
Reviving natural product science
Researchers have long favored naturally derived drugs, he said, because they are more potent, more selective, and have fewer off-target effects.
But starting in the mid-1980s, “people got fed up with the difficulty of discovering them,” he said. His idea was to create something akin to a search engine for genomes that can reveal hidden natural products based on their distinctive genomic signature. Warp Drive has now built that search engine, and uses it to discover all of the genes required to make a natural product.
For instance, the company is finding specific molecules that were made by bacteria as part of a germ warfare strategy against fungi. Those same molecules can be used to treat humans, due to similarities between humans and fungi, Verdine said. Thus, the therapeutic molecules the company is discovering “have billions of years of evolution behind them,” he said.
But Warp Drive Bio is not discovering antibiotics — that’s a widespread misperception about it, he said. The company expects its first two compounds are most likely to be useful for treating cancer, though the next compounds won’t necessarily also target cancer, Verdine noted.
Venture capital backing
Verdine became a venture partner at Boston life science venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures in 2009, and initially brought his idea about natural product discovery to the firm. Third Rock joined Sanofi to invest the $125 million in Warp Drive.
Other people involved in its founding included Harvard human genome sequencing pioneer George Church and James Wells, of the University of California, San Francisco.
At Sanofi, president of global research and development Elias Zerhouni was a key early believer in the Warp Drive vision, according to Verdine. Paris-based Sanofi, which acquired Cambridge-based Genzyme in 2011 for $20.1 billion, has more than 5,000 employees in Massachusetts.
While Warp Drive Bio has been funded for five years to capitalize the initial opportunity it is pursuing, “there are five to six other opportunities” that have become apparent since the company began, Verdine said.
Those include opportunities in “essentially every therapeutic area” along with possible applications for the technology in agricultural bio and specialty chemicals, he said.
The vision is now to have “a long-term collaboration with Warp Drive continuing to push molecules into the Sanofi pipeline from this very particular class,” Verdine said.
Warp Drive has 36 employees and expects to add about 10 more by the end of the year, Verdine said.