Mnemosyne announces name change to Luc Therapeutics, its move to Cambridge
Evolution of firm marks progress in R&D of small molecule that acts as fast-acting agent to combat depression
PROVIDENCE – Mnemosyne Pharmaceuticals, an early stage drug development firm that was formed in 2010 as a start up with initial support from the Slater Technology Fund, is poised to announce its name change to Luc Therapeutics and its move to its new location in Cambridge, Mass., the firm’s CEO and president, Vanessa King, told ConvergenceRI in an exclusive interview.
The move, the name change, and the hiring of new chief scientific officer, Timothy Piser, reflect the ongoing evolution of the company and its successful progress in researching and developing new small molecules, including a rapid-acting agent for depression. The announcement of a major partnership with Big Pharma appears to be imminent.
The origins of the Mnemosyne brought together two scientists from Pfizer in Groton, Conn., including Frank Menniti [who became chief scientific officer], with Kollol Pal, [who became CEO], a successful life sciences entrepreneur from Boston, focused on drug development opportunities and NMDA receptor modulation in the brain, what the company’s founders called “the brain’s master switch for learning and memory,” and its role in regulating synaptic plasticity.
Beginning with an initial $250,000 investment from Slater, the company parlayed smart science, shrewd business acumen, and cost-effective research conducted by Contract Research Organizations to raise $11.5 million in Series A financing, including $6 million from Atlas Venture in July of 2013 and continued support from Clal Biotechnology Industries. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]
The original name was taken from the name of the Greek goddess of memory; the new name references the English word, lucidity, and the Italian word, luce, according to King. “Our intention is to develop therapeutics that will bring clarity and light, metaphorically, to the minds of patients,” she said, in a news release.
In October of 2014, Pal was replaced by King as CEO, who had most recently served as head of Amgen’s East Coast business development and licensing operations, as well as external venture innovation. King had previously directed business development for deCODE genetics, Inc., an Icelandic company that was acquired by Amgen for $415 million in 2012. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]
King, who was joined by Richard Horan, senior managing director at Slater, for the interview, spoke at length about what she saw as the important take-away about the Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.
Rhode Island, she said, had served as a nurturing environment for the company, pulling together the team, the talent and the research platform, “breathing life into the creation, and allowing it to grow and flourish, and then enabling the necessary next step to go forward, from a position of strength to that next position of strength.”
It would be wrong, King continued, to view the move to Cambridge and the name change in a negative light. “Providence and Rhode Island should see that you can play a very valuable role in creating innovation, and not be Boston, and not be San Francisco,” she said. It’s important, she added, “to realize what the strengths of Providence are, and to appreciate them; they’re worth a lot. When you can take a company such as [ours] and take its entire heritage to Cambridge, and [serve] as a real example of how companies get started [in Rhode Island].”
King concluded: “I am really excited about the fact that we were not incubated by Atlas or by Third Rock, the way that many of our peers in Cambridge will be. Because we are great example that Rhode Island, and [investors] like Slater, can actually provide a really critical role in an innovation ecosystem. We will be a show case.”
Horan chimed in: “We here in Rhode Island [need to recognize] that we operate as part of a larger innovation ecosystem and we ought not succumb to that fishbowl effect.”
Here, then, is the interview by ConvergenceRI with Vanessa King, the president of the newly named Luc Therapeutics, and Richard Horan, the senior managing director at Slater Technology Fund.
ConvergenceRI: What is happening at Mnemosyne? You hinted that your have some big news to share.
KING: As you know, the last year has been one of continued evolution at Mnemosyne. I joined just about a year ago, and the company has made a lot of progress on the science and the [drug] programs.
The founding vision was about modulating the NMDA receptors, which are the core fabric of the brain, the essential mediator of synaptic plasticity, to help alleviate the most serious psychiatric diseases in patients.
The company has made a lot of progress, shoring up our strengths and shoring up our scientific knowledge on the NMDA pharmacology side as well as the chemistry side.
On Monday, we’re going to be announcing our exciting next steps in the company’s evolution.
We’re going to be changing our name to Luc Therapeutics to help better reflect the progress that we’ve made going forward.
We’re going to move our headquarters up to Cambridge, Mass., which we see as a natural evolution of our company. We were very fortunate to be started here in Rhode Island, and we were able to pull a lot, to gain from, its innovation landscape.
[The move to Cambridge] reflects our being pulled to that center of gravity as we [become] more integrated with the scientific community there and the drug discovery ecosystem there.
The third part is strengthening our team, with [the hiring] of a new chief scientific officer, Timothy Piser, who has spent decades in neuroscience drug discovery, with a lot of it focused on NMDA receptor pharmacology. He has spent much of his career at AstraZeneca; he most recently comes from FORUM Pharmaceuticals, which is advancing the first product into the clinic for cognition and schizophrenia.
We’re very excited.
ConvergenceRI: What will be your relationship with Rhode Island, going forward? Are you saying that you want to move more in tune with the Boston/Cambridge world?
KING: I plan to make it additive, not subtractive, meaning that we’re looking at being more immersed in the Cambridge ecosystem but continuing our connection to the Providence ecosystem. It’s and, rather than or.
In Providence, my understanding is that there is a lot of development on the horizon, and I think that the prospects are even stronger in the future.
HORAN: Let’s take a step back and provide some historical context. The original concept of Mnemosyne was as a drug discovery venture, in the classic drug discovery paradigm of small molecules, focusing on clinical development, targeting discovery of small molecules that modulate those basic targets.
And, in particular, the opportunity was to try and draw upon the competencies that existed from scientists that had worked for Pfizer in their Groton, Conn., office.
The focus was neuropsychiatric conditions that were major unmet needs.
From the Slater perspective, and from the Rhode Island perspective, the idea was to form a small molecule drug discovery venture, targeting a very well validated pathway, the NMDA receptor function, drawing upon the competencies available out of Pfizer and in the Cambridge ecosystem, setting up here in Rhode Island, which happens to be the geographic center point. And, so we did.
ConvergenceRI: What are the relationships that exist within the Rhode Island biomedical innovation that you will seek to maintain?
KING: We’re pleased to be connected with Slater and Rich [Horan] on a regular basis, who serves on our board. Two members of our scientific team are still living south of Providence.
And, my understanding is that there is a lot of great stuff happening in neurosciences in Providence.
HORAN: Peter Snyder, vice president of research at Lifespan, is one of the founders of the scientific advisory board. Peter represented an entrance into the neuroscience research community here, at the Brown Medical School, and in basic biology, and at Lifespan, in clinical neuroscience.
At Brown, in neuroscience, in addition to basic research, and neuro-technology under the leadership of John Donoghue, the third leg is synaptic plasticity. Diane Lipscombe [the interim director at the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences] is a pioneer in the field of calcium channels. And, the NMDA receptor is a calcium ion channel.
ConvergenceRI: With the name change, the move of your headquarters to Cambridge, and the hiring of a new chief scientific officer, are there new small molecules that have been discovered?
KING: Since the last time you interviewed me, certainly. Over the last year, we finally have provisional patents on some of these. They have different characteristics.
If we didn’t have new molecules today, compared to the last time we spoke, we wouldn’t be sitting here; this is the bread and butter of what we do.
The primary efforts of Mnemosyne have evolved over time. We are now focused on two major areas, sequentially, the first of which is a fast-acting agent for depression.
The goal is to provide positive impact on the lives of patients with major depressive disorders.
With the current drugs, you have to put the patient on it for [a long time] before you can tell if it is going to have positive effect upon these patients. Whereas with ketamine, it’s an intervention that you can actually apply in the emergency room, for example, for patients who present with risk of suicide, so it’s rapid acting. That’s been our first area of focus.
The discovery program for [for this small molecule] was more tractable than some of the other ones.
HORAN: Coming up with a ketamine-like compound was the more tractable program in terms of drug discovery.
ConvergenceRI: Now that you’re on the verge with some of the your discoveries, you’ll probably need another round of investment to move toward the clinic. Is that correct?
KING: We’re closer than we have ever been to doing that. We will need to partner to advance some of our programs into the clinic.
We are actively working on that. In future conversations, when we talk about our full scientific agenda for the next year, I can give you more color. I look forward to being able to do that very soon.
ConvergenceRI: I would assume that would mean some partnership with Big Pharma.
KING: We’re working toward that. The question is when, and how do you partner.
You always want to wait to partner until you have gotten the full value of the molecules and the platform.
ConvergenceRI: The current conversation in Rhode Island has been skewed by the continuing unfolding of the documentation of the 38 Studios debacle and the collapse of Nabsys, a very promising company that had raised some $50 million but stumbled trying to find a partner for its technology. How would you frame the move by Luc Therapeutics to Cambridge in a positive light? Is Rhode Island a nurturing place of innovation, in your view?
KING: A resounding yes is the short answer. The longer answer is that Mnemosyne wouldn’t have existed if not for Rhode Island and the vision of the Slater Fund to see the potential there.
It’s almost like being the producer for a movie, and pulling together all of the key components, often over a period of years.
The company that I joined as CEO was attractive to me because of exactly that, it had pulled together all of the competencies and had made a lot of progress in those first four years, in terms of nurturing, if that’s the right term.
Pulling it together, breathing life into the creation, and allowing it to grow and flourish. It’s that breathing of life, and then enabling the necessary next steps to go forward from a position of strength to that next position of strength. That’s how I see the continued evolution.
ConvergenceRI: And, to the cynics in Rhode Island, where there a lot of Eeyores, who would rather see the negative, how would you respond to the question of why you couldn’t stay and grow here?
KING: I think that if they were to look at the intrinsics [what makes an] innovation ecosystem, and you know more about this than any of us, because you look out over the entire innovation ecosystem and not just in life sciences, it’s clear that there is some of that here. And even more of that in greater measure, greater density and greater density in Boston and Cambridge.
Which is to say, for any company at different stages of its growth and evolution, what you need in terms of your internal programs, your talent, your partnering, different ecosystems are going to be right for you.
Providence and Rhode Island should see that you can play a very valuable role in creating innovation, and not be Boston, and not be San Francisco. It’s important to realize what the strengths of Providence are, and to appreciate them; they’re worth a lot. When you can take a company such as [ours] and take its entire heritage to Cambridge, and it can [serve] as a real example of how companies get started [in Rhode Island].”
I am really excited about the fact that we were not incubated by Atlas or by Third Rock, the way that many of our peers in Cambridge will be. Because we are great example that Rhode Island, and [investors] like Slater, can actually provide a really critical role in an innovation ecosystem. We will be a showcase.”
HORAN: We here in Rhode Island [need to recognize] that we operate as part of a larger innovation ecosystem, and we ought not succumb to that fishbowl effect.