As a longtime biopharmaceutical operator and investor, I have developed marvelous relationships with extraordinary individuals all committed to doing the same thing — improving patients’ lives with novel medicine. That is no small feat, and requires durable bonds to sustain a team through the ups and downs of this world where, frankly, most things fail technically. All drug development programs walk a fine line, and I believe people and relationships make the difference between success and failure.
Relationships were fundamental to the idea of Vivace, which launched today.
Upon beginning at Canaan Partners in 2009, one of my first meetings was with Ge Li and Ed Hu, CEO and CFO of WuXi PharmaTech who were touring the U.S. introducing us to WuXi’s capabilities. Ge was introduced to Canaan by my colleague Peter Farina who was an early believer in East-West synergies and had seen the power of WuXi first hand.
I met the CEO and founder of Vivace Therapeutics, Sofie Qiao, shortly after she sold LEAD Therapeutics to BioMarin in 2010, when she was looking for her next thing. She had founded LEAD with a former colleague of mine, Len Post. Almost 20 years ago, Len and I had held leadership roles in the Bayer — Onyx collaboration that gave rise to Nexavar — the first drug ever approved for hepatocellular cancer — which represented Bayer’s first step into oncology and was foundational to Onyx’s success.
Sofie collaborated with Canaan as a consultant, then landed at WuXi, starting their WuXi venture capital initiative. At WuXi, we quickly began co-investing in a number of companies. But then Sofie, with WuXi’s support, approached me with a bigger idea: would I be interested in company formation with WuXi Ventures around novel IP using an East-West model on steroids? WuXi would serve as the R&D engine in the East, guided by Western R&D management expertise in the U.S. As a kicker, Len would glide out of his CSO role at BioMarin, into part-time CSO role at Vivace and executive-in-residence at Canaan while we worked to identify the IP we wanted to license, then into the full-time CSO role.
Because of our existing professional relationships, we were unified in our vision for the types of scientific programs we would look for — novel approaches, science that could make a profound difference in patients’ lives, and programs that could be proven out sufficiently with venture dollars. The Vivace platform and leadership team proved attractive to world class academic investigators, and very quickly we catalyzed relationships with Kun-Liang Guan (UCSD, world leader in YAP biology), Sheng Deng (UCSF, prolific academic entrepreneur and founder who had teamed up with Kun-Liang) and Bin Liu (UCSF, serial inventor with a compelling and novel idea about how to exploit bispecific antibodies in a construct he calls — wait for it — BINspecific antibodies). I will spare the scientific rationale for the name. Although not by design, the academic founders are all Western-based preeminent Chinese nationals with strong ties to the East.
The platform, leadership, and scientific founders also became a nidus for more investor interest. While Canaan and WuXi led the Series A with support from Mission Bay capital, within 18 months we quickly had interest from additional top tier investors with Cenova Capital and Sequoia Capital China leading a Series B that recently closed — again all nurtured via multiple pre-existing relationships with Cenova and Sequoia.
Well-capitalized with a superb team and science that is progressing, the infrastructure is in place and it’s on to execution. The promise for patients is great. The underlying technologies will have their inherent twists and turns, but the company is built on a strong foundation of personal relationships that will endure, help manage and overcome those bumps and power us to do everything we humanly can to deliver on that promise. And then of course we hope we have chosen areas where human biology will behave! Stay tuned.