With $24M and Pharma Backing, Ex Epizyme Prez Aims to “Raze” Tumors

Xconomy Boston — 

Jason Rhodes has taken the helm of a new startup biotech. And in some ways, it’s a bit like the one he just left, Cambridge, MA-based Epizyme—a developer of cancer drugs. Now the question is whether he can help steer the new one, Raze Therapeutics, towards the billion-dollar valuation Epizyme enjoys today.

Fresh off his four-plus-year stint as the CFO (and eventually president) of Epizyme, Rhodes has taken on his first assignment back in the venture capital world. He’s become the acting CEO of Atlas Venture’s latest biotech startup, Raze, which is coming out of stealth mode today with a $24 million Series A round from a group of venture firms and pharmaceutical companies.

The new task for Rhodes: capitalize on insights from researchers at the Whitehead Institute (David Sabatini), Massachusetts General Hospital (Vamsi Mootha), and Princeton University (Joshua Rabinowitz), into a newly discovered set of biological pathways that appear to be a key driver of tumor growth. By doing so, Raze aims to make a new class of small-molecule drugs that Rhodes says might be effective across a wide variety of both solid tumors and blood cancers. (He declined to specify which ones the company is looking at in particular.)

Because these pathways have never been specifically targeted before with a drug, there will a lot of discovery work ahead, and that’s what Raze is going to put the Series A cash towards.

Despite the unknowns, a large group of venture firms and corporate venture arms are willing to bet Raze can succeed. Atlas has been joined in the $24 million round by MPM Capital Management, Partners Innovation Fund, and three pharmaceutical companies: Astellas Pharma (via Astellas Venture Management), Merck Serono (MS Ventures), and Novartis. Atlas partner Peter Barrett is Raze’s chairman of a board that includes members of MPM (Ansbert Gadicke), MS (Nilesh Kumar), and Partners Innovation (Reza Halse).

Atlas entrepreneur-in-residence and Padlock Therapeutics CEO Michael Gilman is on Raze’s scientific advisory board, along with the company’s three scientific founders and Keith Flaherty of MGH and Harvard Medical School.

The central idea behind Raze is to home in on targets in a set of biological pathways called “one carbon metabolism,” that help tumors grow. These pathways, Rhodes says, provide the tumors with substances needed to help them bulk up, cause damage, and spread.

“If you can inhibit those pathways, you can shut down this whole biomass process,” Rhodes says. “It stops tumors from growing and we believe it also actually then kills those tumor cells.”

Rhodes says these targets are “selectively turned on” in tumor cells, meaning blocking them specifically could spare healthy tissues. Initially, Raze aims to develop small-molecule drugs that bind to specific metabolic enzymes in these pathways. So far, the company has delivered encouraging results from tests in petri dishes—showing, essentially, that tumors suffer if you mess with targets in these pathways, and that some targets on these pathways could be drugged with certain chemicals. That was what led Atlas and others to turn the company from a seed project to a startup.

The idea of looking at cancer metabolism isn’t unique. It’s the foundation of companies like Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO), for instance. But Rhodes says while Agios’s cancer drug programs are focused on pathways involved in cell differentiation and maturity, Raze views itself in an “adjacent and separate space” around growth, or anabolic metabolism, of tumors.

“To our knowledge they’re largely separate,” he says. “We certainly believe today that Raze really has a leadership position in these anabolic/metabolic pathways.”

Rhodes helped found Fidelity Biosciences—the biotech venture arm of Fidelity Investments—and was a vice president at MPM Capital before moving over to industry for two significant stints. He was the VP of business development at RNA interference drugmaker Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) and then moved up to the CFO role at Epizyme—a company developing cancer drugs based on epigenetics.

While at Epizyme, Rhodes and CEO Robert Gould helped string together a series of industry partnerships. The tipping point for Epizyme was its big partnership with Celgene, a deal that brought a the company $90 million up front, and the ability to keep U.S. rights to its drug programs and remain independent. That transaction propelled Epizyme towards one of 2013’s most successful biotech IPOs.

Rhodes, however, wanted to do the early dirty work again. “From a career perspective, it was time to be a CEO or go back to venture,” he told Xconomy a few weeks ago. On September 29 he was named a partner at Atlas, where he says he aims to stay “for a long time.” Rhodes will likely hand off the CEO role of Raze at some point, rather than stay.

There are hurdles ahead, but Rhodes’s new gig with Raze does, as least conceptually, look like an attempt at an Epizyme or Alnylam redux.

“The model of building a platform oncology company around a large novel area of biology is something that I’ve done before,” he says. “It made a lot of sense to join Raze.”