New VC in Boston: Arch Venture Partners Opens Small Office With Eye Toward Basic Science, Multidisciplinary Collaborations

[Updated, Sept. 22, 11:15 am. See end of story] You might have seen Alex Rives around town in the past year, particularly if you’ve spent time hanging out at coffee shops near MIT, Harvard Medical School, and other bastions of basic research. He’s the one invariably wearing dark jeans and a sport coat over a t-shirt—and sporting a light Don Johnson beard.

Rives is a rising star associate with Arch Venture Partners in Seattle—or, rather he used to be in Seattle. Rives has just opened Arch’s first East Coast office here in Boston. It turns out that he’s actually been living in the area for about a year. But after spending most of that time working mostly out of coffee shops—where he would meet with researchers to discuss the potential commercial opportunities of their work—he moved into space on Berkeley Street in the Back Bay last month, setting up shop inside the offices of Oxford Bioscience Partners. This is Arch’s fifth office, joining those in Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and San Francisco. As of this writing the office is not yet listed on the Arch website. But it’s real and open for business, Rives told me last week over a few beers.

I’ve known something was up with Rives and Arch for a quite a while now. Even though Rives is only 28, he was the founding president of Fate Therapeutics, a San Diego-based company built in large part on science from Harvard Medical School that I profiled in April of 2008. We invited Rives to speak about Fate at an Xconomy life sciences forum with co-investor Amir Nashat of Polaris Venture Partners last September, and I’ve seen him around town ever since. I’ve been pressing Rives for months to tell me what’s he up to—and finally, he says, the time was right.

Arch has wide interests, investing across life sciences, information technology, energy, and other areas—often starting at very early stages of research. “Arch has been since its outset about working closely with basic researchers. That’s one of the things that makes us unique,” Rives says. “My role is to really work to develop close relationships with leading researchers in the Boston community. So I spend a tremendous amount of time at various academic research institutions.”

The firm has done a lot of deals over the years in the Boston area. Off the top of his head, Rives lists Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Quanterix, Ensemble Discovery, and, of course, Fate. A more recent investment, he says, was cancer drug developer Agios Pharmaceuticals, where Arch was a co-institutional founder, along with local firms Flagship Ventures and Third Rock Ventures. Bottom line, he says: “Arch has always seen Boston as vital to it.” Now, the firm apparently sees the area as even more vital.

Many, but hardly all (think Amberwave or Ahura Scientific) of the Boston area firms Arch has invested in are in the life sciences, Rives’ own specialty. But, says Rives, “I’m really focusing across the board.” Arch has always had a strongly multi-disciplinary approach, often investing in startups that bridge several fields, he says. Fate was one example, involving researchers from Boston, Seattle, the Bay Area, and San Diego with different but complementary areas of expertise who joined forces to develop a new approach to stem cell medicine. A more recent example is Sapphire Energy of San Diego, in which Arch was a co-founder and later co-invested with the Wellcome Trust, Venrock Associates and Cascade Investment, the investment arm of Bill Gates. The biofuels company was formed around expertise in life sciences, energy, and physical sciences, Rives says.

Having another top-tier venture firm like Arch join the Boston startup scene has to be good for the area, and Rives seems poised to make a name for himself. He earned a B.S. in biology and philosophy from Yale University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a commendation in biotechnology. After graduation in 2004, he returned to his native Seattle to work at the Accelerator, a famous biotech incubator where he assisted in the early development of a small array of start-up companies. Arch is an investor in Acclerator, and after about a year there, Rives was offered a job at the venture firm. He was in Arch’s Seattle office before moving here.

Rives says he welcomes the move to New England, which he knows well from his college days. “I know it. I love it. I’m happy to be out there,” he says.

And he’s especially happy with his role as a young venture capitalist. “When I left college, that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “What motivates me is the opportunity to work together with brilliant people to build a company that has the potential to transform human health.”

[Update, Sept. 22] Rives will not be working completely alone for Arch in Boston, I have just learned. Cindy Bayley, an Arch affiliate, is also in the Boston area and has helped start many companies for the firm, including deCode Genetics, Adolor, and Elixir Pharmaceuticals. She also had early involvement in Alnylam and Agios, Arch reports.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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