Xconomy has some tragic news to report. David Fanning, the president and CEO of one of Seattle’s more promising biotech startups, Theraclone Sciences, died suddenly this morning, according to an e-mailed statement from its board of directors. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.
“We are heartbroken by this sudden, tragic loss, and our thoughts go out to David’s family and colleagues,” Theraclone said in a statement from its board of directors. “At this time we ask only that you join with so many in mourning the loss of our colleague and friend. We remain dedicated to the science, the employees and the promise of the company’s world class technology.”
Fanning was less than 50 years old.
“This is just devastating,” says Johnny Stine, the founder of Theraclone.
Fanning got his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, and his business degree from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. His career in biotech brought him to Seattle in 1997 to work for Steve Gillis at Corixa. Fanning was vice president of business development and marketing there for three years, had a brief stint as chief business officer for CoPharma in the Boston area, and then returned to Seattle to work for Gillis again as Corixa’s chief operating officer, from 2001 until the company was sold to GlaxoSmithKline in 2005.
The merger left a lot of the talented people from Corixa looking for a new challenge, and Fanning found it again through his contact with Gillis. This time, Gillis was a venture capitalist with Arch Venture Partners, an investor in the Seattle-based Accelerator, which in those days was incubating a startup then called Spaltudaq.
Spaltudaq was built on a new idea for discovering antibody drugs. Scientists there look at blood or tissue samples from patients, and identify antibodies that are made by people’s immune systems against foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria, or cancer cells. Mother Nature has evolved pretty efficient defense mechanisms against these troublemakers, so the company’s scientists sought to copy some of the best natural antibodies and use them as drugs. The company hit its early scientific goals inside Accelerator, and went on to raise $29 million in March 2007 from Arch Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, HealthCare Ventures, Amgen Ventures, MPM Capital, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.
The company, which has since changed its name to Theraclone Sciences, has had its challenges raising money in recent years, like a lot of startups. Theraclone hasn’t been able to push any of its drug candidates along into the serious proving ground of clinical trials, making it difficult for Fanning to generate a lot of interest from investors during a downturn.
But Theraclone, under Fanning’s leadership, had a few victories in the last year that allowed it to forge ahead. Its scientists, along with collaborators at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, published a blockbuster paper last September in Science. By studying rare blood samples from HIV-resistant people in the lab, scientists at Theraclone and their collaborators found two weak spots on the virus, and were able to genetically engineer two new antibodies that broadly neutralize many variations of the virus circulating around the world. It was the first time in more than a decade that scientists discovered antibodies with broad neutralizing capability that can fight multiple strains of the virus in the lab.
Almost exactly one month later, in October 2009, Fanning and Theraclone struck an important partnership to keep the science moving forward. Japan-based Zenyaku Kogyo agreed to pay Theraclone as much as $18 million over time to help it develop broadly neutralizing antibodies against flu viruses, which could be useful to stockpile in case of a future pandemic.
The timing of the paper in Science, which put Theraclone in the international news, couldn’t have been better. The day in September when the HIV paper was published, Fanning was in Japan, negotiating with the people from Zenyaku.
Fanning’s death has a personal affect on me. My office is an adjoining building next to his on First Hill, and I would occasionally see him on my way to my usual coffee shop, often walking and talking with his cell phone, but never too busy to wave and smile. I sat next to him at dinner a couple months ago at an event organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, and I remember him raving about the emerging prowess of China in the field of contract research. Just last Friday, he called me to brainstorm about a WBBA event in which he was hoping to showcase Seattle as a hotbed of innovation in antibody drug development.
Fanning is survived by his wife and young daughter. Once I know more about the cause of death, I’ll update this story. But if you have any memories of David that you’d like to share with the Seattle innovation community, please feel free to add a comment at the bottom of this story or send me a note directly at [email protected] and I’ll add it as an update.
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