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Former Celera Scientist Takes Genomics to Taiwan

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Vita Genomics would probably be a different company today if Craig Venter weren’t such a busy guy.

Ellson Chen, Vita’s president and CEO, was a principal scientist at Celera when he brought the idea of starting an Asian genomics-based company to his boss. “Then Craig got busy with his whole-genome shotgun,” Chen says.

So Chen continued discussions with business people in Taiwan, including his brother Preston, and returned to Venter in early 2000 with a plan. But Venter was still busy racing the Human Genome Project to release a draft sequence. With Venter’s permission, Chen went out and secured $100 million from Taiwanese venture capitalists more comfortable with investments in manufacturing than R&D, but who also wanted to develop the biotech industry. He then quit Celera, moved back to his native Taiwan, and incorporated Vita in March 2001.

Vita uses Celera and public databases as well as patient phenotype samples provided by local academic and medical institutions for a SNP-based analysis of how diseases and drug responses differ in Asians. It is initially focusing on Hepatitis B and C, which are treated with interferon cocktails that are expensive and often ineffective. “The goal is that we should be able to eventually forecast whether a particular patient can or cannot be cured by this interferon cocktail,” Chen says. “That is the short-term goal and we hope to get some results in a year or two.”

He hopes that his company, which has 55 employees and should grow to about 100 by this summer, will eventually investigate other diseases such as asthma and type 2 diabetes.

Chen, 52, worked for Genentech from 1980 to 1992 before going to PE Corporation, where he witnessed its morph into Applera and the formation of Celera. “I always say I got a first-row seat to watch the evolution of the biotech industry in the States. … And I guess my 20-some years of experience helped out — at least I can identify who I should talk to and initiate deals,” Chen says, which should be helpful for dealing with many companies. Except, that is, for his former employer: with the departures of Venter and Peter Barrett, he notes, “I’m pretty much losing my contacts at Celera.”

— Diana Jong

 

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