A Madison, WI-based cancer drug development company is in a holding pattern as it searches for a new leader to replace the chief executive who departed early last year.
Quintessence Biosciences has been without a CEO since Ralph Kauten, one of Wisconsin’s more successful biotech entrepreneurs, resigned in early 2016, Kauten says. Kauten, who continues to serve on the company’s board of directors, reportedly joined Quintessence in 2002.
Launched in 1999, Quintessence was once considered promising, in part because of the pedigrees of its co-founders and now-departed leaders. The company initiated a clinical trial of one of its drug candidates in 2009, and in 2012 raised more than $1.4 million from investors, according to an SEC filing.
But now, it appears as if Quintessence could be in limbo.
In an e-mail to Xconomy, Quintessence co-founder Ronald Raines says that his company is currently looking to bring on a new CEO.
“I cannot comment further until after that hiring is complete,” Raines wrote.
Asked if his view is that Quintessence is currently still operating, Kauten says, “I’d call it more dormant than operating. I don’t think anything is going to happen until they find a CEO.”
Kauten says that as far as he knows, Quintessence does not have any employees at the moment. He says that Raines and other board members currently have a candidate under consideration, but that he (Kauten) is not close to the situation. He’s not aware of any board meetings scheduled in the future, he says.
Quintessence is developing protein-based therapeutics for cancer patients. According to the federal website that tracks clinical trials, a Phase 1 study of the company’s lead drug candidate began in 2009 and was expected to be completed in 2015. The trial took place at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On its website, Quintessence says its patented technology is licensed through an exclusive agreement with UW-Madison.
Kauten says that midway through the trial, Quintessence was running short on funds, and decided to try to find a strategic partner to help take the company forward.
Quintessence halted the clinical trial, he says, in order to focus on finding a partner. The company had a promising prospect lined up, but that group said it would only agree to work with Quintessence if it raised more money from investors. The two sides did not end up making a deal, Kauten says.
“During that lull of not having a clinical trial going on, I got asked to step in as CEO of Lucigen,” Kauten says. Lucigen is a company based just west of Madison that develops technology and supplies to help researchers and healthcare workers rapidly identify pathogens.
Kauten was named CEO of Lucigen in 2014, and led both that company and Quintessence for more than a year.
Before that, Kauten helped form multiple Madison-based life sciences companies. In 1992, he co-founded PanVera, a maker of proteins and drug screening products. PanVera merged with San Diego-based Aurora Biosciences in 2000 in an $86 million stock deal. Another business Kauten co-founded was Mirus Bio, in 1996. That company, a developer of RNA interference drug delivery technology, was acquired by Roche in 2008 for $125 million.
Besides Raines, the other co-founder of Quintessence is Laura Kiessling. Both are professors of chemistry and biochemistry at UW-Madison. Kauten says that in recent years, Raines and Kiessling were not overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations. That work was mostly handled by Kauten (before he resigned) and Laura Strong. According to her LinkedIn profile, Strong, an Xconomist, left Quintessence in August. Reached by e-mail, she declined to comment on the current status of the company.
Kauten says he believes “there’s a chance” that Quintessence won’t end up hiring another CEO, and the business will wind down. However, he declined to say how likely he feels that is to happen.