WisBiz People: UW grad hopes to mold Dane County into drug research dynamo
This is a new edition of WisBiz People, a column from WisBusiness Editor Brian Clark. If you know someone with a good business story to tell, write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your idea.
By Brian E. Clark
Trevor Twose says he thoroughly enjoyed his days as a post-doctoral researcher at UW-Madison in the early 1970s.
"Those were interesting times for a number of reasons," says Twose, a wry smile washing over his lean face. "Molecular biology was just breaking through. My work mostly focused on drug resistance in bacteria."
When his studies were finished, Twose (pronounced "toos") returned to his native England, never thinking he would come back to the Madison area to live and work.
But back he is. He returned a little more than two years ago to take a job running Scarab Genomics. He is now CEO of Mithridion, a start-up he and his wife Patti founded with UW associate pharmacy professor Jeff Johnson and his co-inventor, Thor Stein.
Gov. Jim Doyle lauded Johnson in his State of the State speech for leading a team that discovered a protein transthyretin - that appears to halt the advance of neurological ailments such as Huntington's, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's and Alzheimer's.
Johnson plans to stay in his lab at the university, while Twose hopes to build Mithridion named for the poison antidote mithridate - into a successful drug design and development concern.
Twose, 58, also is a principal with Biopons, a company started by former Waisman Center director and UW neurology professor Terry Dolan. Biopons (pons means bridge in Latin) is a professional services company aimed at helping biotech companies make the leap from laboratory to the marketplace.
Twose, whose resume is thick with experience as a scientist and biotech company executive, says the hats he wears at Mithridion and Biopons are a comfortable fit.
"In my career I have moved where science took me," says Twose. He spent part of his career in Manchester, England and then moved to near Oxford, an area he calls similar to Madison.
(Twose and his wife Patti, a native of Wales, met at Manchester University. In addition to working in the pharmaceutical industry, she also has run an outdoor clothing company.)
Bringing drug development to Madison
If Twose has anything to do with it, Dane County will one day have its own cluster of pharmaceutical development companies. Twose hopes to have a role creating and managing at least a few of them. Other drug development companies now operating in Dane County include Bone Care International, Hector Deluca's Deltanoid and Quintessence.
Biopons' Dolan is now semi-retired and lives in Tucson the majority of the year. He calls Twose both an accomplished scientist and businessman.
"Trevor is extremely intelligent and filled with insight about how research can be made applicable to real societal and medical problems," Dolan says.
"Moreover, he has the financial background and communication skills to present ideas to investors in a way that makes them understandable and attractive," he says. "It was fortuitous for Biopons and for Mithridion that Trevor returned to Madison."
Though Twose enjoyed Wisconsin in his post-doc days, he was recruited in the early 1970s by ECI Pharmaceuticals to return to England. Later the company, which discovered beta-blockers and revolutionized blood pressure therapy, became AstraZeneca.
"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," says Twose. "Ironically, since then I have spent a quarter of my career back here in America, because this is where much of the best biotechnology is."
Twose an avid cross-country skier and outdoorsman recalls Madison as being much snowier during his winters here three decades ago.
"I also remember it being a top quality research center," he says. "It had a very good, very collegial environment. A good friend went on to Stanford and was shocked at how competitive it was."
Twose spent about 11 years doing drug research and development at AstraZeneca, eventually leading arthritis and immunology research projects. He supervised 60 people, including medicinal chemists and biologists, who worked to develop and discover new drugs. In his last four years with the company, he co-founded a new diagnostic division. His group pioneered DNA fingerprinting, which has been used to solve countless crimes, while at the same time freeing people wrongly sent to prison.
Following his DNA stint, he spent four years as consultant, working with about 30 companies. He eventually joined the Xenova Group, a drug development company, helping to take the company public in 1996. He played a key role in raising $90 million for the firm and became its chief financial officer. He says he learned, somewhat to his dismay, that raising money in England was difficult.
"Companies are drip-fed capital in the United Kingdom and are chronically under-capitalized," he says. "It is very low-risk capital there."
He says England has many fewer start-ups than the United States. "I'd say they are about 10 years behind here," he says.
After his time with Xenova, Twose returned to consulting before co-founding a cancer drug development company that became Proacta Therapeutics. It is now a Delaware corporation because of the financing advantages of being in the United States.
Twose says he had little difficulty leaving the lab and moving to the business side of the drug development industry.
It began with the DNA fingerprinting project for AstraZeneca. Together with colleague David Oxlade, he put together the business plan and licensed the technology.
"It was an evolution," he says. "But one I was quite comfortable with."
When the opportunity came to return to Madison, he was ready.
"I remembered it quite fondly," he says. "The quality of life is very high here and I like the changing of the seasons. I also like cycling, skiing and canoeing things you can all do here."
He also figured the Madison-area could use someone with his skills.
"UW-Madison is a real powerhouse for technology," he says. "But there is a limited amount of management talent from major pharmaceutical companies around here. The closest is Abbott in Chicago.
"So I've found a market for my skills," he says. "I can make my contribution here."
Success starts with compatible co-workers
Twose says he and his wife who will be operations director for Mithridion found a good match with co-founder Johnson.
"Jeff was very clear," says Twose. "He said 'I want to focus my life on my lab and keep doing my science.'"
"Jeff has plenty of research irons in the fire," Twose says. "He did not want to leave the lab to start a company.""
Twose said Johnson was originally advised that he would not be able to start a company if he wasn't willing to commit himself 100 percent to the effort. But after a meeting following a Waisman Center function between Dolan, Trevor and Patti Twose, Johnson learned that he could have his cake and eat it, too so to speak.
"We told him that it is not uncommon for a company in which a professor - the scientist - is a consultant and share holder who spends about 10 percent of his time advising and the remainder in his own lab," Twose says.
Johnson, for his part, says he is pleased to be starting a Wisconsin-based company rather than see his research go to a big out-of-state drug company.
It also works out well for everyone involved that Thor Stein - a graduate student who was a collaborator with Johnson in his breakthrough studies wants to make his career in industry.
A PhD who is nearing completion of a medical degree, he will soon join Mithridion and be the firm's chief scientific officer.
"He will be a great asset because he has scientific analytical skills as well as medical knowledge," Twose says. "That is a powerful combination.
Twose says Mithridion, now in its infancy, is negotiating a licensing agreement with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The foundation has filed a U.S. patent application stemming from Johnson's research on behalf of the School of Pharmacy.
With backing from angel investors and grants from state and federal agencies, Twose says he hopes to soon have the company on its way to creating and testing drugs that could be near approval from the Federal Drug Administration in as little as six or seven years.
"If we can get a dollar of grant money to a dollar from investors, that would give investors a good risk-reward profile," he says. "Down the road, we would seek venture capital funding."
He says Mithridion initially hopes to raise about $1.25 million. If a drug makes it to the point at which it is ready to be tested on humans, as much as $10 million would be needed in funding.
"By then, however, the drug can be worth tens of millions of dollars to a major pharmaceutical company," he says. An exit strategy then would be license the drug out to a drug firm for the Phase III trials.
He says the economic and social impact of drugs that could successfully treat Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases would be huge.
Billions of dollars are now spent annually to treat Alzheimer's alone. It afflicts 5 million Americans, including 110,000 Wisconsin residents. Those numbers will surely increase as baby boomers age.
Twose says his dream scenario for Mithridion in the coming years would be to develop three drugs, with one partnered with a pharmaceutical company, another in early phase II trials and a third as a solid drug candidate.
"With a portfolio like that and the capability to keep developing drugs through WARF or wherever else, we would be in a good position to do an IPO or be acquired by a drug company.
"We shall see "
In the meantime, he'll also be keeping busy with Biopons helping other scientists turn their discoveries into businesses.
"When someone like Jeff finds a protective mechanism that can stop the progression of Alzheimer's, you think 'Aha!" he says.
But the distance between the laboratory and the market can be daunting, Twose says.
"That's where Biopons comes in," he says. "We did the financial and business planning for Mithridion and will provide the management skills. We want to make that technology transfer happen here in Wisconsin."