Hutch’s “Project Violet” Taps Crowd, Seeks $20M for Drug Discovery

Xconomy Seattle — 

Many scientists are dreaming these days about using crowdfunding to raise money for their projects, through platforms like Kickstarter. Usually the scientists seek to raise a few thousand bucks in the name of a fairly incremental advancement in our understanding of biology.

Jim Olson and his team at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are thinking way bigger than that.

Olson, probably Seattle’s most accomplished biotech entrepreneur of the past five years, has a team working on a new drug discovery platform that could have attracted $20 million in venture capital back in the go-go days of the early 2000s. That’s not a serious option in this time of venture capital scarcity and federal research cutbacks. So Olson and his team have crafted an alternate plan. It’s called “Project Violet,” and it draws its name and inspiration from a little girl with brain cancer that Olson, a pediatric oncologist, once treated. The project combines aspects of crowdfunding, social media, and video game-style engagement in the name of drug discovery.

If this plan pans out, Project Violet will scrape together $20 million from thousands of small and large donors, and keep them engaged in a drug discovery journey over the next few years. The money will help advance several drug candidates to the point where a company can more appropriately pick up the baton for development.

No one can say for sure whether this is a new model that will help fill empty biotech and pharma company pipelines, but Project Violet has so far attracted quite a bit of support. About 70 volunteers from Amazon have helped craft an Internet crowdfunding platform over the past year, and Project Violet has tapped the expertise of the region’s video game experts for advice on how to hold the attention of its donors throughout the long, difficult journey of drug development. With little publicity beyond a talk Olson gave earlier this year at TEDx Seattle, Project Violet has already raised enough to pay a few salaries for members of the project team.

“It’s an experiment, like everything we do,” Olson says.

Jim Olson, founder of Project Violet

Jim Olson, founder of Project Violet

Olson, who sees patients at Seattle Children’s and does research at the Hutch, has stepped up to this challenge after founding two new Seattle biotech companies—Blaze Bioscience and Presage Biosciences. Blaze is based on a technology called Tumor Paint, which uses a peptide that binds with, and lights up tumors, so that brain surgeons know which tissues they should cut out and which parts of the brain they should leave alone. Presage has a special probe that enables it to inject different drug candidates, or combinations of drug candidates, into a surgically removed slice of tumor so that researchers can see which drug is mostly likely to work for an individual patient. Both companies have had success raising money from angel investors, and Presage has secured a couple of partnerships with Celgene and Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

Project Violet essentially is a new idea that builds on what Olson’s team learned … Next Page »

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One response to “Hutch’s “Project Violet” Taps Crowd, Seeks $20M for Drug Discovery”

  1. scientre says:

    Thanks for writing about this project Luke. I wanted to capture the link to the discussion that it sparked over on Twitter about nonprofits, crowdfunding, maintaining focus, etc.