No PhD, “No Fear”: Alice Zhang, 27, Aims Software At Neuro Diseases

Xconomy San Francisco — 

It’s impossible to sum up a person with a word, a sentence, or even a paragraph. We all contain multitudes. But if a picture of 27-year-old biotech CEO Alice Zhang could emerge from a single line, it might be her response when asked to describe her first time through the whirlwind of the annual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco.

“I wasn’t super frazzled by the whole thing,” she said with a slight shrug.

Zhang is doing very unusual things in a very unusual way, starting with running a biotech company in her 20s. Her attitude about it all is rather matter of fact. “My viewpoint is it’s always fascinating to go into a new ecosystem and immerse myself, learn the jargon and all the levers,” she said, summing up her slate of meetings with drug industry scientists and businesspeople at J.P. Morgan.

How new was the experience for Zhang? Less than a year before, she was at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying the way hundreds of genes are interconnected in various neurological diseases. She was just months away from a PhD.

She never finished. Instead, she took the knowledge she had soaked up in the UCLA lab of Daniel Geschwind, a geneticist who specializes in the human brain, and the Boston Children’s Hospital lab of neuroscientist Clifford Woolf, where she spent a year, and started a biotech company, Verge Genomics, in San Francisco. Verge emerged from an oh-so-Silicon-Valley accelerator program to raise $4 million last summer. Zhang quickly surrounded herself with boldface biotech names, some of the top academics in the fields of genomics and neurodegenerative disease, often by cold-calling (or doing the Internet equivalent).

“She came to me,” says Harvard University professor and genetics pioneer George Church, now on the Verge scientific advisory board. “I had heard a little about Verge but hadn’t pursued it until she came and asked. We share an interest in Alzheimer’s disease and the networks of genes involved in neural problems. It struck me as a good combination for the current moment.”

“Alice has no fear,” says Gwen Melincoff, who was a top dealmaker at pharmaceutical firm Shire for a decade. “She reached out to me via LinkedIn. We started conversing like we were BFFs [and] I asked her, ‘Excuse me, do I know you?'” Melincoff is now a Verge advisor.

Verge is using software to analyze the networks of genes that drive neurodegenerative diseases and uncover their Achilles’ heels for drug developers to target. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a current project, with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in future plans. Going after these diseases is another facet of Zhang’s ambition: neuroscience has been a massive puzzle to drug developers. They have nearly been shut out in getting Alzheimer’s treatments approved, and have not fared much better in other diseases.

If it makes a convincing case, Verge could license its discoveries to drug companies that are itching for new (not to mention faster and cheaper) ways to tackle these confounding diseases. Later, if Zhang has her way, Verge could graduate from helping the drug developers to becoming a drug developer itself—an age-old ambition in the biotech world.

If Verge were a tech startup, Zhang would be one of countless 20-somethings leaving academia behind to pursue an entrepreneurial idea in Silicon Valley.

But in the biomedical world, the PhD is still the ne plus ultra. People drop out for all kinds of reasons, but not because they’re … Next Page »

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