Theraclone Sciences CEO David Fanning Dies Suddenly

Xconomy Seattle — 

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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9 responses to “Theraclone Sciences CEO David Fanning Dies Suddenly”

  1. Tragic news; how terrible….

    Prayers with Katie and their daughter.

  2. A friend says:

    What an absolute shock, and just so tragic. I knew Dave because of his relationship with Steve, and other business partners, and I can only think of him as kind man who you would want to be known as one of his friends. ((((Katie)))) my heart is breaking for you. Dave has some amazing friends who will hold you up, and I promise you your husband will NOT be forgotten. Your little girl will know who her daddy is because Dave was a person that one does not forget easily. I have been thinking Dave and his family the entire day, and I wish i could wrap my head around what we are to learn from this life taken away from us, his family, his wife, and his baby girl…i’m just so sorry.

  3. A college friend says:

    David was one of the warmest and funniest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of warm, funny people. He had an amazing talent for storytelling, and not coincidentally for spotting the telling detail in his dealings with others.

    Like so many who knew him, I’m shocked and very saddened at this news. Although I’ve never met them, I extend my most heartfelt condolences to his wife and daughter: I understand at least something of their loss, as do many, many people in various parts of the world.

    Dave’s impression of the swindler (and our Harvard contemporary) Viktor Kozeny was one of the great comic feats I’ve ever witnessed. I’d give a lot to hear that again

  4. Friend from Corixa says:

    He was a brilliant business man and a great guy and he managed to be both at the same time. He was a master story teller and I will always remember having beers at the Garage while listening to him tell and re-tell stories – that was okay because he’d change them every time. while I only ran into him a few times in the past couple of years I know he was a wonderful Dad. He’ll be painfully missed but I’m comforted by his memory and the life he lived.

  5. Peter ThompsonPeter A. Thompson says:

    A tragic loss for his family and for the Seattle biotech community. He will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

  6. Ryo KubotaRyo Kubota says:

    I am so shocked with this news.

    He was the first biotech executive I have met in my life while I was working at the University of Washington about 10 years ago because his interest in meeting with me coming from Japan where he spent few years working. He always called me “Ri-yo-o” which is Japanese pronunciation of my name which is usually very difficult to pronounce. He helped me start the company by being a great business advisor to me for many years and served as a board member of my company in early days. We participated in recent WBBA event to discuss about the business with Asia as a presenter. I even talked with him few days ago about the potential business opportunities that I wanted to bounce idea with him, and he was very helpful in clearing my thoughts. He understood me so well about who I am as a person. He was my closest friend that I can pick up the phone and talk anytime as a fellow CEO and a mentor.

    I feel like I have a big hole in my soul losing my best friend.

  7. I was saddened to learn of David’s untimely passing. I knew him when at Corixa when he was VP of Business Development and President. We negotiated several license agreements. I always enjoyed doing business with David. He was knowedgeable, courteous, fair, and knew how to get a deal done. He is a loss to biotech and all of us who knew him.

  8. Lisa says:

    This is terrible. I’m so sorry to hear about that. My prayers are with his family and with the next person who steps up to take his place.