Pfizer Board Member Jumps Ship to $217 Million Startup Denali

Published: May 22, 2015

Pfizer Board Member Jumps Ship to $217 Million Startup Denali
May 21, 2015
By Riley McDermid and Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Brand new biotech San Francisco startup Denali Therapeutics has claimed another high profile pharma exec, with Pfizer Inc. announcing Thursday board member Marc Tessier-Lavigne has stepped down to chair the board at Denali.

Tessier-Lavigne is also a co-founder of Denali, which launched last week and includes three former Genentech researchers as co-founders. The company has said it will focus on translational research for the development of drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and others.

“We’d like to thank Dr. Tessier-Lavigne for his service on Pfizer’s board, particularly for his expertise and counsel in scientific matters,” Pfizer Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ian Read said. “While we regret the loss of Marc’s service, we congratulate him on the launch of Denali and offer him our best wishes for all of his future endeavors.”

Tessier-Lavigne began serving on Pfizer’s board of directors in December 2011. Most recently, he was a member of the Regulatory and Compliance Committee as well as the Science and Technology Committee.

Denali made a splash May 14 when it launched in the Bay Area. Its founders include Ryan Watts, former director of Genentech’s Department of Neuroscience, who will be Denali’s chief executive officer, chief scientific officer and board member. Acting as chief operating officer is Alexander Schuth, former director and head of Genentech’s Neuroscience Partnering.

Tessier-Lavigne, who is also president of The Rockefeller University, will be the chairman of Denali’s board. Tessier-Lavigne was head of Genentech’s drug research prior to its acquisition by Roche in 2009.

“Our team will place an emphasis on rigorous translational medicine for targeted drug development, seeking evidence of drug activity in the brain and identifying biomarker-defined patient populations to increase the probability of clinical success,” said Watts in a statement. “We are committed to collaborating with leading academic groups, companies and advocacy groups.”

The founders raised $217 million in venture capital. “The science in the field has been breaking open and this has been accelerating over the past decade,” said Tessier-Lavigne in a statement. “Denali is based on the idea that the time is right to tackle these diseases systematically and deeply.”

The field of neurodegenerative research is a crowded one, with Biogen, Inc., Eli Lilly and Company , Merck & Co. and Genentech all working on Alzheimer’s research. Denali’s approach will be to focus on newly discovered genes tied to degenerative brain diseases, which Watts and the Denali founders are calling degenogenes. The company will also focus on the nascent field of how inflammation affects neural diseases. Denali is already evaluating 12 still undisclosed drug targets.

Additional investors include Fidelity Biosciences, ARCH Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures, and the Alaska Permanent Fund, represented by Crestline.

“The best scientists in the world are now calling us,” said Robert Nelsen, co-founder of ARCH Ventures in a statement. “You can’t wait 10 or 20 years for the perfect study in Alzheimer’s when it’s going to cost us a trillion dollars in today’s dollars by 2050. The societal cost of these diseases is mind-blowing.”

This year marks significant research and industry focus on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. On Feb. 16, 2015, the Cambridge, U.K.-based Alzheimer’s Research UK announced a Drug Discovery Alliance that will invest £30 million in three institutes in Cambridge, Oxford and London. They are expected to hire 90 new researchers.

On May 8 Israel-based NeuroDerm Ltd. announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had given the company the go-ahead to continue its clinical studies for a Parkinson’s treatment. Other companies working in the Parkinson’s space include IMPAX Laboratories, Inc. and AbbVie .

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