Supersized Ambitions: VentiRx Aims to be Extra-Large Player in Cancer, Allergy Medicines

Xconomy Seattle — 

They love their coffee at VentiRx. They love it so much that they named their San Diego- and Seattle-based biotech company after the extra-large size of beverage containers that Starbucks shrewdly branded for its menu. The name also happens to symbolize VentiRx’s supersize ambitions for creating new drugs against cancer and inflammatory diseases.

Naturally, I had to catch up with the company’s scientific co-founder, Rob Hershberg, at a Starbucks in downtown Seattle and order a venti coffee myself. (I think he actually got a grande something, but I didn’t take notes on what it was). Hershberg, a molecular biologist and former Harvard Medical School professor, got his biotech experience as chief medical officer at Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN), and a key scientific role before that at Corixa. His co-founder on the business side, Michael Kamdar, made his mark negotiating deals at San Diego-based Anadys Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANDS).

The VentiRx duo has raised $29 million in venture capital from Arch Venture Partners, Frazier Healthcare Ventures, and Domain Associates. The money is going toward building a portfolio of conventional small-molecule drugs designed to work in new ways against cancer and inflammatory diseases. Specifically, the company’s lead drug candidate is supposed to amplify the body’s front-line defense against disease —the innate immune system—to kill cancer cells in combination with other treatments. The company’s second candidate builds on the company’s immunology expertise to make a drug that creates a diversion of sorts that tamps down an overactive response that causes allergies. Something like 30 million people in the U.S. complain of allergies, so anything that works, and is convenient, is a venti-sized opportunity.

“It’s gonna be big,” Hershberg says, with a cheeky nod to the company name.

One thing that’s designed to stay small at VentiRx is the payroll. The company has a total of just 12 employees, with the R&D operations led by Hershberg in Seattle, and the business and finance side in San Diego run by Kamdar. The two of them run the company like co-CEOs, Hershberg says, and have made a pact to talk every day and see each other in person at least once a week, he says.

The game plan is to keep the company lean and hire outside contractors to do much of the work, or operate as a “virtual company” in the language of the VCs, Hershberg says.

VentiRx got its start in 2005 and 2006 with $2 million in seed capital from Arch and Frazier, and some key guidance from Arch managing director Steve Gillis, a mentor of Hershberg’s when they were both at Corixa. They had a shared enthusiasm … Next Page »

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One response to “Supersized Ambitions: VentiRx Aims to be Extra-Large Player in Cancer, Allergy Medicines”

  1. Rob is one of the smartest biotech guys I know. VentiRx’s approach is a potentially revolutionary one. There is great power and opportunity in the innate immune system and the first company to harness that will be a very valuable one.