Third Rock Ventures Sniffing Around Ex-Vertex Digs in Cambridge for Startups

Published: May 18, 2015

Third Rock Ventures Sniffing Around Ex-Vertex (VRTX) Digs in Cambridge As Site for Startups
May 18, 2015
By Riley McDermid and Alex Keown, Breaking News Staff

Perennial biotech venture capital favorites Third Rock Ventures has joined the scrum of companies jockeying for a presence in white-hot biotech real estate market Cambridge, Mass., saying Monday it is looking at Vertex Pharmaceuticals ’ former 340,000 square foot facility. BioSpace reported Friday that the property will be re-developed to host a number of smaller biotech startups.

Third Rock will take advantage of that startup-friendly hatchery, it said, telling Beta Boston that “new master space agreement that can fit multiple companies over time,” but that it is “not a done deal yet.”

The area, which includes three buildings, will be rebranded as Sidney Research Campus by BioMed Realty Trust, which owns the buildings. Vertex vacated the space in 2013 when it moved a few miles into Boston. In addition to the Boston area, BioMed Realty, which focuses on life science and biotech properties, works in core U.S. life science markets including San Francisco, San Diego, Maryland, New York/New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Seattle.

Bill Kane, BioMed’s vice president, told the Boston Business Journal last week that smaller biotech companies are finding it difficult to acquire space that meets their needs. Out of the 36 companies seeking lab space in Cambridge, 28 company officials said they were looking for “80,000 square feet of space or less.”

BioMed is converting some of the space to “universal flex labs” which will be able to expand to meet the demands of the biotech companies as they grow.

The new site already has its first tenant lined up. RaNA Therapeutics, a 25-employee preclinical biotech headed by Ron Renaud, the former CEO of Idenix Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , will move in in September, the Journal reported. More tenants are expected to be announced later this year. In 2013 RaNa inked a deal with Denmark-based Santaris Pharma A/S to use Santaris’ Locked Nucleic Acid (LNA) technology to develop RNA-targeted medicines.

The greater Boston metropolitan area continues to lead the way as the hub of the east coast’s pharmaceutical and biotech industries. More companies, such as IBM Corporation ’s IBM’s new Watson Health Unit, or Beryllium, locate their headquarters and satellite offices to the area.

One of the reasons for the greater Boston area becoming such a major hub in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries is the plethora of research universities in the area. Boston also has one of the highest educated workforces in the nation.

Not only are smaller companies calling the Boston area home, but many larger and established pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer Inc. , GlaxoSmithKline , Takeda Pharmaceuticals , Sanofi , Biogen Idec, Inc. and Novartis AG have presences in the city. The close proximity of so many pharmaceutical and university laboratories provides researchers and scientists easy access to clinical studies and building partnerships between companies.

Another large former pharmaceutical space that is drawing attention is Merck & Co. ’s former 1 million-square-foot headquarters in Whitehouse Station, N.J. The site is reportedly under contract, but the perspective buyers names have yet to be revealed. There have been rumors that Google Inc. is interested in the site, but there is currently no evidence to support those rumors.

Merck put the Whitehouse Station building and a portion of its 1,000 acre campus on the market in 2013 as part of an initiative to sharpen the company’s commercial and research and development programs, as well as a reduction in operating costs. Merck had been headquartered in Whitehouse Station since 1992. Prior to that, the company was based in Rahway, N.J.

In April Massachusetts-based Biogen, Inc. said it will stay in Cambridge for the long term, after biotech leasing company BioMed Realty Trust, Inc. announced Thursday that it just signed a 10-year lease with the biotech for approximately 80,000 square feet of Class A laboratory and office space at the company's 301 Binney Street property.

The company said in a statement that it has leased the entire fifth floor of the office and lab building to Biogen, which put it at full capacity for the 417,000-square-foot property. Biogen will now join neighbors Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Living Proof.

"BioMed Realty is pleased to welcome Biogen to our growing list of tenants in Cambridge, and we look forward to building a long relationship with such a strong player in the Kendall Square research community," said Bill Kane, Senior Vice President for BioMed Realty in Boston/Cambridge.

Biogen focuses on creating therapies for neurological, autoimmune and hematologic disorders. BioMed said the company will use the new space “to expand its drug discovery efforts in this core life science district,” adding it is one of the “largest and fastest growing” global life science companies based in Massachusetts.

In February, Third Rock announced it is doubling down on synthetic chemistry, announcing that it has poured $45 million into a Series A round for startup Revolution Medicines in attempt to get in early on antifungal, complex molecular technology.

Revolution said it will use the money to build out its 12-employee business, currently based in Redwood City, Calif., as well as focus on building its pipeline of antifungal drugs centered around the reengineered version of potent agent amphotericin B.

The new company boasts a high-profile advisory board, including board chairman, Martin D. Burke, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and early career scientist of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Revolution said in a press release that Burke invented a “transformative method for synthesizing original compounds that are pharmaceutically optimized analogues of complex natural products.” As such, the company has inked an exclusive license agreement with the University of Illinois to practice and expand this technology, and is pursuing a rapid clinical development path with its lead antifungal program that originated in Burke’s laboratory.

“With this major advance in chemical synthesis, we now have the opportunity to unlock the full medical benefits of natural products that have been selected through a billion years of evolutionary pressure,” said Revolution Medicines CEO Mark Goldsmith.

“Marty is a remarkably inventive chemical biologist, and Revolution Medicines is working closely with him in his role as scientific advisory board chairman to exploit his breakthroughs for industrial-scale drug discovery through redesigning complex molecules,” he added. “Our strategy should produce high-impact treatments for serious infections and non-infectious diseases, among them our lead product candidates for patients with life-threatening fungal infections.”

Amphotericin B has long spooked scientists because of its propensity for liver damage as a side effect, but Revolution told the San Francisco Business Times that it has found a way to filter out toxic side effects while keeping it effective against disease.

"That's a remarkable advance, empowered by the synthetic chemistry platform," Goldsmith, who is also a partner at Third Rock, said "Without the technology, that work would not have been possible."

That particular brand of fiddling with complex molecules in an attempt to synthesize the perfect therapeutic approach will be a hallmark of Revolution’s scientific approach, Goldsmith told the paper.

"That complexity is there for a reason," Goldsmith said. "Now we can harness that complexity and convert interesting molecules into interesting drug candidates. We do think the opportunity is enormous."

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