Biotech emerges from town-gown collaboration

Yale Professor of Chemistry and Researcher Craig Crews, the founder of two companies that produce cancer fighting drugs, is the new poster boy of the burgeoning biotech industry emerging in New Haven.

Over the past decade, using his research, Crews, the executive director of the Yale Molecular Discovery Center core at West Campus, has been instrumental in helping spearhead two startups in the New Haven area. Most recently, Crews founded Arvinas, a company that aims to develop new drugs to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases. This past December, he was recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year by Connecticut United for Research Excellence, a state bioscience organization, which includes a range of science companies, universities, entrepreneurs and investors. This is the latest development in a series of town-gown collaborations that has been strengthening New Haven’s startup community.

Crews, a resident of the greater New Haven area for 19 years, is a strong supporter of the local bioscience community and rejected an offer from a Cambridge, Mass. top-line venture capitalist firm to purchase Arvinas.

“I wanted to keep the company here in New Haven, and the State made it very easy to say yes,” Crews said. “This is a home-grown biotech, and this is just one of the many advances in helping grow the local biotech community.”

Crews’s first company, Proteolix, developed Kyprolis which treats multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that causes tumors in the bone marrow. Crews worked with Yale to raise $18 million in 2003 to start the company and to develop Kyprolis. The startup was sold in 2009 to San Francisco-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals for $851 million due to the drug’s success. Its projected sales are $2 billion by 2018.

His next startup, Arvinas, founded this past July, utilizes the same technology. But instead of inhibiting proteins, the company  aims to tag rogue, cancer-causing proteins and remove them from patients’ systems. The drug would move into clinical trials within three to three and a half years.

Over the past six months, Arvinas has raised $15 million dollars in private venture funds and an additional $3 million from the State in a combination of loans and grants from the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The company has recruited 20 employees since operations officially began in September.

“The goal is to take that $18 million and get a drug candidate into clinical trials within 3 or 3.5 years,” Crews said. “Without the State, Yale and the private venture capital, Arvinas would not be the company that it is today.”

Indeed, New Haven and Yale have been instrumental in the development of Arvinas. Three of the company’s four major investors are New-Haven based, and the Yale University Office of Cooperative Research has helped secure intellectual property protection.

According to Thomas Lynch ’82 MED ’86, the director of the Yale Cancer Center and a member of the Bristol-Myers Squibb and Arvinas’ boards, biotech companies need space, money and a community of smart and innovative people to thrive. He added that universities such as MIT and Stanford, which are already equipped with these resources, are well-placed to serve as “anchors” for the companies.

Science Park, which houses Arvinas, is a collaboration between the University and New Haven developer Carter Winstanley and has been a budding hub of biotech companies. The area shows the University’s commitment to growing the biotech industry in New Haven, Lynch said.

In addition to providing space for companies, Yale has invested in places like Center for Genome Analysis. The center gives scientists the resources to provide proof of concept, or evidence of a product’s viability, to investors, Lynch said. While 10 years ago, a smart scientist with a Powerpoint could raise sufficient funds to begin a biotech start up, investors are now asking for data showing that the company’s products will work, he added.

But the University’s investment in biotech was not always so strong. Science Park in the mid ’90s was far from what it is today, according to Irving Adler, Executive Director of Corporate Communications at Alexion, which move into the space at 100 College St. when it is completed in a year a half.

“The facilities were extremely basic, the infrastructure was not in great shape. I don’t think anyone would dispute that this was not what you would expect in high tech facilities. A lot was left to the tenants,” he said.

But since then, the atmosphere has changed, he said, citing Downtown Crossing as an example. With better facilities and infrastructure — both of which lure more willing investors — he thinks New Haven will increasingly see biotech companies “clustering,” like they have in Cambridge and on the West Coast.

Lynch added that while New Haven currently has 20-30 biotech companies, once the city passes a threshold of 50 to 60, it will likely be self-sustaining.

For every one biotech job, two indirect jobs are added to the economy, according to the Council of State of Governments.

 

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