A Discovery Engine That Keeps on Cranking

Company to Watch – Venatorx Pharmaceuticals

As May’s Company to Watch program concludes, Big4Bio shares thoughts from Venatorx’s Founder and Senior Vice President, Biology and Grants Development, Daniel Pevear, Ph.D., about why Venatorx is a company worth watching.

by Marie Daghlian

When Chris Burns, Luigi Xerri, and Dan Pevear left Novartis after it cut loose its Protez Pharmaceuticals group, they felt they had some unfinished business.

All three had worked on novel approaches to dealing with multi-drug resistant bacteria and felt there was a lot more they could do. With nothing but ideas and a drive to do good science, they got together and began to build their company, Venatorx Pharmaceuticals, from scratch with help from some government grants.

Venatorx’s Founder and Senior Vice President, Biology and Grants Development, Daniel Pevear, Ph.D.

That was 11 years ago. Today, Venatorx stands proudly on its accomplishments. “We were fortunate that our ideas very rapidly evolved into some very interesting new directions with the compounds that we were working on, and the rest is history,” says Pevear. “Here we are today with over 80 employees and three compounds in clinical development.”

But it is more than luck. Most companies will tell you that their culture is special, and Venatorx is no different. In the end it comes down to the company culture and what you expect of your employees, notes Pevear. The three founders had been in the industry for many years and had seen a lot. They began to build the company slowly, one person at a time, starting with a few people they had worked with at Protez Pharmaceuticals. It was important not only to find the smartest people they could, but also people who could work in a team environment with a collaborative spirit and one goal in mind: to get therapies into the hands of physicians to effectively treat patients.

“That’s all we care about here. It’s really special and gratifying when you work with a group of people like that,” says Pevear. “When you know that we’re all trying to do the right thing, trying to do good science—it starts with good science and flows from there. Our culture is special and it’s not by accident.”

Today, Venatorx can boast that its turnover rate has been extraordinarily low. “This is an all-for-one, one-for-all setting,” says Pevear. “We’ve had a lot of successes. We’ve had some setbacks. When we face setbacks, we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves off. We get back into the game. Our team members take a lot of responsibility for what they do here. There isn’t a problem that our team can’t solve.”

Still, there’s a lot of work ahead. Venatorx must address the commercial challenges of the antibacterial space as its lead experimental antibacterial compound advances in late-stage testing. Pevear is hopeful though. Venatorx is on a growth path and eventually will be a commercial operation, he says, though whether the company will go public or remain private is not yet clear. And legislation moving through Congress could perhaps change the way the world values a company such as his.

“We are creating assets and products that are really needed—today and perhaps even more in the future—as drug resistance continues to evolve,” Pevear says. “That will be recognized at some point and then the company will be valued accordingly. We just want to keep doing this, we do this well, and we’re excited to be able to create assets—crank out high-value clinical candidates. I see the company continuing to grow at a measured pace. We are always careful not to outspend the money we have. We’d like to keep our babies if we can and eventually have a sales force and a commercial presence.”

Pevear’s excitement about the Venatorx discovery engine is based not only on having delivered three compounds into clinical development: the IV and oral experimental treatments targeting superbugs; and the soon-to-enter the clinic program against hepatitis B that Pevear says is competitive with anybody’s compound in that space; but also, on the preclinical programs going on right now in the company’s research labs.

“We have a tremendous amount of money to do more “blue sky” research,” says Pevear. Most advanced are new classes of compounds that do everything beta-lactams (a group that includes penicillin and derivatives) do, but that cannot be destroyed by beta-lactamases, the primary resistance mechanism in gram negative bacteria.

“That program would be transformational when we crack the code and come up with those types of compounds,” says Pevear. “We are close to declaring candidates for development. It’s very exciting.”

COMING NEXT: Q&A with Vin Milano, Venatorx Board of Director 

This is part of the Big4Bio Company to Watch program for May 2021: Venatorx Pharmaceuticals.
For more information on the series, click here.