A new drug discovery and development company is taking root in Madison, and it will prevent more than a dozen skilled scientists here from losing their jobs.
Nimble Therapeutics formed in April, spun out of Roche Sequencing Solutions, originally NimbleGen Systems, which is slated to close by June 2020.
“I’ve been working with my team on this technology for quite some time. We knew it was a very powerful technology for the marketplace,” said Jigar Patel, founder and CEO of the new company.
NimbleGen, born from UW-Madison research in 1999, discovered a fast, inexpensive way to manufacture DNA microarrays, also called gene chips. Gene chips are tiny test platforms used to explore genetic differences. The microarrays produced in Madison are used to better characterize the genetic aberrations in cancerous tumors.
Roche, the Swiss global pharmaceutical giant, bought NimbleGen in 2007 for $272.5 million. But since then, the Madison site — which had about 90 employees when Roche bought the company — has had at least two staff reductions.
Roche said last June it would close the Madison operation completely by June 30, 2020, ending the jobs of 79 employees.
Enter: Nimble Therapeutics, a company based on discoveries made by some of the Roche employees here.
“We’ve been operating as a research group within the Madison site of Roche,” said Patel, who has led the team. “We’ve built up a completely new iteration of the core technology.”
Instead of gene chips, Nimble Therapeutics is creating peptides, or fragments of proteins.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, linked together in chains. The human body manufactures about 20 kinds of amino acids.
Nimble has found a way to develop more than 350 amino acids using light-based technology called photolithography. Tiny mirrors reflect light to create patterns on a slide that enable chemical reactions that form the peptides.
The peptides, or protein fragments, can be used to screen potential drug candidates to see which are effective in binding to a disease cell, and “the peptides, in and of themselves, can become drugs,” Patel said.
The process is covered by numerous patents, which Roche is licensing to Nimble.
The fledgling company has 13 employees to start with. “We plan on expanding over the next few years,” Patel said.
Big head start
Nimble Therapeutics is coming out of the gate with a $10 million investment — a sizable commitment for a Madison startup — from Telegraph Hill Partners, a San Francisco investment firm that focuses on innovative life science companies.
“The technology is quite novel. It’s a completely stand-alone business with tremendous potential to grow,” said Telegraph Hill senior partner Deval Lashkari.
Telegraph Hill is the sole outside investor in the initial funding — along with all of Nimble’s employees — and it is the majority owner, Lashkari said.
While some venture capital firms try to lure their portfolio companies to move near them, Lashkari said Telegraph Hill plans to keep Nimble in Madison.
“We think there’s a tremendously innovative team at Nimble Therapeutics,” he said. “Some of the best opportunities are in what might be considered areas outside the biotech hubs of San Francisco, Boston and San Diego. We have investments all over the country.”
Patel — who was part of NimbleGen since before Roche bought it — said Roche encouraged employees in Madison to identify new opportunities for the technology advances that grew out of NimbleGen.
“Roche was very generous to let us keep exploring,” Patel said. “I’m thrilled to be in a position where we can operate independently.”
New partners sought
He said Nimble is not yet disclosing which disease areas it will pursue or providing a timetable.
Patel said he expects Nimble to seek out other pharmaceutical companies as drug development partners, perhaps even some biopharma startups in the Madison area.
Roland Green, a co-founder of NimbleGen Systems, praised his former co-worker on his new venture. “He did a great job putting this deal together in a very short time,” said Green.
Green is CEO and co-founder of Invenra, a Madison company started in 2012 that’s developing antibody-based drugs to fight cancer. Invenra is collaborating with several drug companies, including Exelixis and Merck. He said Nimble could join the list.
“There is a chance for the two companies to collaborate, and we are exploring that,” Green said.
Some not staying
Roche notified the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development in June 2018 that it would close its Madison operation, eliminating 79 jobs.
Four of the positions were slated to end Dec. 31, 2018, and four by June 30, 2019, with the rest to be phased out between Dec. 31, 2019, and June 30, 2020. A “small number” of employees have accepted transfers to other Roche sites, Roche spokeswoman Elizabeth Schupp Baxter said.
“The technology that was produced at the Madison site has reached the end of its lifecycle for Roche’s applications, and we are launching a new generation of technology that is being managed from a different Roche facility,” she said.
Roche also owned part of what had been Mirus Bio Corp. in Madison, a drug development company with RNA interference technology, but Roche sold that to Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals in 2011. Arrowhead is based in Pasadena, California, but most of its employees are in Madison. Arrowhead reached a deal with Janssen Pharmaceuticals last November that could bring in as much as $3.7 billion.