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Life Sciences Roundup

Using venture world’s lessons to battle Alzheimer’s

Mosby visits Alzheimer’s patients at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley. Mosby visits Alzheimer’s patients at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 2009)
Xconomy.Com / August 30, 2010

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When Henry McCance started at Greylock Partners in 1969, the venture capital industry had less than $100 million flowing into it each year, he estimates. Now, it’s roughly a $20 billion-a-year sector of the financial world that has backed companies whose products are, in many cases, staples of modern living.

Five years ago, McCance, now Greylock’s chairman emeritus, started a nonprofit research foundation called the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.

“I’ve seen the power of what a passionate, bright entrepreneur, coupled with some farsighted investors, can do in terms of changing an industry and transforming how the commercial world works,’’ he says. He hopes his foundation can bring about a similar transformation in medical research.

It all started about 10 years ago, when McCance’s wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a degenerative neurological disorder. McCance found that most doctors’ advice seemed primitive, at best, suggesting patients do things like take Advil or vitamin E to slow the disease’s progression.

He connected with a few other wealthy families with a strong interest in Alzheimer’s research, he says. Veteran investors Jacqui and Jeff Morby and philanthropists Phyllis and Jerome Rappaport joined him as the founders of the fund, he said.

First, they set out to find the brightest researchers. This falls directly in line with McCance’s first tenet of venture capital success: Find the visionaries.

“The really great venture capitalists are proactive, not reactive,’’ he said. “They try to identify the best entrepreneurial talent, and they go and sell themselves to those future leaders.’’

So rather than sift through unsolicited research proposals, the fund’s founders looked for the people they thought were the best. At the top of the list was a Massachusetts General Hospital geneticist, Rudolph Tanzi, McCance said; he joined the foundation to head its research consortium.

McCance’s second piece of advice for success: Support the visionaries with top executive leadership. To apply that principle in the nonprofit context, the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund needed to hire the equivalent of a go-to-market person, McCance says. It brought on a president and CEO, Tim Armour, a Harvard Business School graduate who ran another nonprofit, the JASON Foundation, focused on improving middle school students’ science and math scores.

The fund has also embraced McCance’s third tenet: Establish a frugal culture.

Greylock donated office space for the first two years. The fund has since moved to Wellesley. And the three founding families pay all overhead costs, so that 100 percent of every dollar they solicit goes to research.

“Everybody who knows me knows I stretch a dollar in every way,’’ McCance says.

It is largely by following McCance’s last piece of advice — dare to be great — that the fund seeks to set itself apart. It raised about $15 million between 2005 and 2009, with about half coming from the founders. It aims to raise about $4 million per year from now on, he said.

ERIN KUTZ

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Billions of dollars are being poured into research and development work against cancer, by governments and pharmaceutical companies all over the world. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve been itching to pull off a socko event that gathers some of Boston’s top entrepreneurs in the field for an in-depth conversation.

So here it is. “Boston’s War on Cancer’’ will be held Oct. 20 at Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co. in Cambridge. This event will feature some of the big names, and maybe a few you don’t know.

Millennium’s chief executive, Deborah Dunsire, will kick things off with her view of the state of cancer drugs. We will also hear from CEOs at some of New England’s top venture-backed start-ups who are working on cutting-edge strategies against cancer.

The group includes Doug Fambrough of Dicerna Therapeutics from the field of RNA interference drugs; Alexis Borisy of Foundation Medicine and Third Rock Ventures on promising new cancer targets; Mark Goldsmith of Constellation Pharmaceuticals on epigenetics; and Dave Okrongly of Quanterix on new diagnostics precise enough to spot early signs of cancer in a drop of blood.

In between, we’ll hear from people who have devoted their careers to thinking about how to take promising new drugs to market.

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Danvers-based Photo Diagnostic Systems, a medical imaging start-up, has raised $5 million in equity funding. The news was first reported by Mass High Tech. Its article says Bernard Gordon, a founder of Analogic and NeuroLogica, bought the assets of Photo Detection Systems (now defunct) and invested in the new company through the Gordon Charitable Remainder Trust. Photo Diagnostic, with a staff of about 15 people, is developing a portable PET (positron emission tomography) scanner.

This report was compiled by the editors of Xconomy, an online news website focused on the business of technology and innovation. For more New England coverage, visit www.Xconomy.com/boston.