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Tim Harris, CEO of Structural GenomiX, Leads The Way from Structures to Drug Leads


Tim Harris is bulldog-aggressive about making deals with pharma, but he’s no bull in a china shop.

The Structural GenomiX CEO, who has 25 years of experience in the field, at both big pharma and small biotech, plans to strategically maneuver his company into the trenches of pharmaceutical research, through a mixture of outside collaborations using protein structure-based drug discovery with its beamline X-ray crystallography technology, and internal discovery work.

“The key is to balance between leveraging our platform and focusing on our own drugs,” the native Brit said over a cup of morning tea at New York’s Plaza hotel recently. “You have to plot it step by step by step.”

So far, Harris has closed five deals, including publicly announced ones with Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Aventis. The company is planning to add two or three more in the next few months, Harris stated — adding that none of the deals is in the bag yet. Right now, SGX actually has excess capacity: Earlier this month it took over the helm of the New York Structural Genomics Research Consortium, which is part of the Protein Structure Initiative funded by NIGMS (see story, page 1), and will produce proteins for the project.

Meanwhile, Structural GenomiX is “focusing in on protein families in oncology” for its internal drug discovery efforts. Although Harris wouldn’t say what area of cancer therapeutics the company’s targets fall into, he did say the proteins were kinases and the area is one “where the molecular pathway of disease is reasonably well-understood.” Rather than focus on new areas, the company is betting that its ability to get protein structures in real time can help investigators get better information about known targets and design better drugs.

Structural GenomiX plans to take its protein-based lead compounds “as far as we can take them, from a skills point of view or a financial point of view.” The skills include those of Harris’ fellow Brits Stephen Burley, a former professor of Molecular Biophysics at Rockefeller University (See ProteoMonitor 02-11-02), and Ian MacDonald, whom Burley recruited from rival struct-ural proteomics firm Structural Bioinformatics in June.

While Harris acknowledged that pharmas are the experts in late-stage drug development — he knows this from his years at Glaxo-Wellcome — he emphasized the need to balance this expertise against maximizing shareholder value for his company. “The further we can take [the compound], the more shareholder value we [create]” he said.

Harris is pushing his troops to work fast and purposefully. The company would like to get an investigational new drug (IND) application filed with the FDA within the next 24 months. Amid this effort, he wants to make sure the internal drug discovery efforts are not at the expense of the company’s fancy tools — principally the dual undulator beamline facility the company built at Argonne National Lab’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), which enables it to obtain the structure of a protein quickly — and provide it with short-term cash.

Cash is a concern for Structural GenomiX, even though the company raised over $85 million in private funding, and is backed by an all-star conglomeration of venture capitalists including Atlas Ventures, Sprout Group, Apple Tree Partners, Lombard-Odier & Cie; Index Ventures, Vulcan Northwest, BA Venture Partners Amerindo, MDS Health Ventures, Orbimed Advisors, and Vector Fund Management.

Aware that it had to make ends meet with less than the $50 million it had left in December 2001, the company shed 20 percent of its workforce in June. “The layoffs occurred primarily in the company’s bioinformatics area, where it had been developing ModBase, a database of computationally modeled structures for domains of over 310,000 proteins, which it planned to market to pharma, and which Celera had agreed to sell as part of its Discovery System. Despite the database’s prominence in the company’s initial business model, it “was not something we got much traction with,” said Harris. So, like other companies, Structural GenomiX decided to abandon the information model for a drug-discovery-oriented one. “We were always intending to be a drug discovery company,” he insisted. “It was just [a question of] how did you get there?”

The company wants to get there with its current staff, Harris said assuredly. “We need all of the people we have got.”

While Structural GenomiX shares the structural biology and high-throughput x-ray crystallography-based drug discovery sector with the likes of Syrrx, Affinium Pharmaceuticals, and Astex Technology, Harris said they do not compete for deals and access to capital (what little access there is.)

“I don’t wake up every day worrying about competition,” he said. “I worry about ‘are we going to do good science?’ And, I worry about our burn rate.”