How Seragon CEO Rich Heyman Made Lightning Strike Twice in San Diego

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first-generation drugs like bicalutamide. These second-generation drugs would not only bind more tightly to hormone receptors—“like superglue,” Heyman said—they also would degrade the hormone receptor itself beyond repair.

Aragon was founded in 2009, after Heyman got a cold call from Sawyers and Rick Klausner, who was then a managing partner with the Column Group, a life sciences VC firm. “They were thinking primarily about going just for prostate cancer,” said Heyman, who had worked on hormone receptors as a postdoc in Ron Evans lab at the Salk Institute.

Instead of focusing only on prostate cancer, however, Heyman recalled that he saw how a similar mechanism of action would explain why some women with hormone-driven breast cancer eventually fail hormone inhibitors like tamoxifen, as well as aromatase inhibitors that  block the production of estrogen. From the beginning, Heyman said he viewed the development of second-generation drugs for hormone-driven breast cancer as equivalent to the program Sawyers and Klausner envisioned for prostate cancer. Heyman built the research team Aragon needed to pursue both areas, and when Aragon began early stage clinical trials in men with metastatic, hormone-driven prostate cancer, the company was building a parallel program in breast cancer at the same time.

“We were actually always very excited about the second program,”Heyman recalled. “It was not sitting on the shelf. In our case, some of our investors said when they invested in our company, ‘I actually like your second program as much if not more than your first.'”

By 2012, Aragon’s mid-stage trials of more than 120 men with prostate cancer “were very encouraging,” Heyman said. But Aragon would need about $100 million to advance the program to a 1,200-patient, late-stage trial. The options he laid out for Aragon’s board included additional fund-raising, establishing a Big Pharma partnership, and selling the company.

After Aragon and J&J had agreed on terms for the buyout, Heyman said, “People literally went home over the weekend; they kept me on as the sole employee over the weekend, and then 25 of the 40 we had at Aragon came back to work on Monday. We gave them all new employment contract as Seragon employees. Same office, same labs.”

After raising $30 million from its investors last August, Seragon began early stage clinical trials this spring with about two dozen women diagnosed with estrogen-receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer who had failed multiple lines of therapy.

“The idea at that point was to build a company that was heavily committed to breast cancer,” Heyman said. But a few companies knew about our breast cancer program.” One thing led to another, and Seragon was soon deeply involved in buyout negotiations with Genentech, the headquarters for parent Roche’s U.S. pharmaceutical operations.

So what’s next for Heyman?

“I’ll help Genentech through this transition because that’s what we’ve agreed to do, and we’re excited to do it, he said. After that, “We’ll probably stay involved in the San Diego biotech community. We love it here.”

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