Spotlight: Quintara Discovery — A CRO Where No Project is Too Big or Too Small

Marie Daghlian

Quintara Discovery, Inc prides itself for being a flexible partner in biotech companies’ drug discovery and development efforts. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, it provides high-quality drug discovery services to the vibrant biotech community in the region and beyond, including in vitro ADME profiling, bioanalysis services, and dedicated assay development and compound screening. In July, Quintara merged with global CRO Frontage Labs to enhance the offerings of both companies.

Recently, Big4Bio editor Marie Daghlian spoke with Wentao Zhang, Ph.D., founder and president of Quintara Discovery about the company, what it offers, the advantages of using their services, and its recent merger with Frontage Labs.


Founder and President of Quintara Discovery, Wentao Zhang, Ph.D.

B4B: Hi Wentao, thanks for your time. Tell me about Quintara Discovery, how it got started, and what you do.

Wentao: Quintara Discovery started almost exactly nine years ago as a contract research organization. I founded it with two of my co-workers from Exelixis. This was, if you recall, during the tail end of the financial crisis of 2008-2012. Exelixis was doing a lot of reorganization, and back then a lot of the discovery companies were forced to focus on product development so were cutting down their research. Basically, the discovery effort stopped at Exelixis, but I was able to work with them on a drug discovery project that was co-sponsored by Bristol Myers Squibb. That’s how we started.

We started by focusing on the early drug discovery process. This process typically involves target identification, use of high throughput screening or rational design to identify lead molecules, and then characterizing those leads. This characterization involves drug-like properties, including metabolic stability, physical and chemical properties, as well as the potential to be absorbed orally and reducing potential liabilities. Many people take multiple medications and sometimes there are drug-drug interactions, often caused by interference with metabolizing enzymes. So, it is very important to know if your potential candidate interferes with some of these enzymes.

B4B: You offer discovery services to companies. What is the process?

Wentao: When we started, we focused on early start-up companies and small companies at the earliest stages of drug discovery. But as we grow, we have started working with large and global biotech companies. But the basic process has always started with the customer’s need. Most of them find us through reputation and word of mouth. Once we understand their needs and goals, we will prepare a quote to execute.

B4B: What is the advantage of using your services versus, for example, a large CRO like Charles River?

Wentao: That’s a good question. We regard ourselves as the domain expert particularly in drug discovery, assay development, and DMPK [drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics]. Our advantage, compared to large CROs like Charles River, is our focus on flexibility. We can work with a client’s phone call and we can do that very quickly. The second advantage is that we have our operation entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most vibrant biotech hubs in the nation. We have benefited from the local community. We have demonstrated over the years a very good reputation of delivering high quality data with a customer-centric and flexible approach.

B4B: What are the current trends and challenges in biotech, especially now when many small companies contract out a lot of their activities? How does Quintara solve their challenges?

Wentao: Right now, a lot of biotech companies have ideas and expertise to start the company but for them to have a full operation takes time. The biggest challenge is acquiring the talent and not being able to recruit fast enough. To be competitive, obviously entails how fast you get the data. Our advantage is we can jump start a startup. Once they have an idea, they are often operating in virtual mode and we can quickly analyze or profile their compound and give them direction of where to go. Is the compound good enough for them to follow up or do they need to have a new direction? So, we fulfill the challenge they face to get the data quickly. The other challenge—setting up a biological or analytical lab, which takes time and talent—we can provide that in a timely manner since we already have a lab in place.

B4B: Do you specialize in a particular type of molecule development, such as antibodies, small molecules?

Wentao: We have three groups. Two groups are mostly focused on small molecules—ADME profiling and small molecule bioanalysis. We also have a growing large molecule effort in biological assay development. In terms of the therapeutic modalities, we are agnostic and support all therapeutic areas.  Although we don’t work on gene therapies, we do a lot of mRNA-based therapeutic discovery work, gene regulation and expression. We also offer PCR services.

B4B: Tell me about your recent merger with Frontage Labs—the rationale and some of the details.

Wentao: We merged with Frontage in July and now are a subsidiary of that company. We focus on drug discovery, especially early stage, whereas Frontage, which is a global company headquartered in Pennsylvania with about 1000 employees, focuses on later stage—GLP bioanalysis and CMC development. We have a minimal overlap with them and there is a lot of synergy between the two companies. For example, as we grew over the past nine years, a lot of our companies, as they grew from virtual startup to an IPO-ready company, they have a clinical candidate—starting from a lead candidate to IND and clinical trials. We supported them up to this point but once they are about to start clinical trials, they need a bigger partner to support their clinical effort, such as GLP bioanalysis. We can relay this to a late-stage company like Frontage, so we can offer a one-stop shop, supporting it in late development. At the same time, because Frontage is mostly focused on late stage DMPK and GLP work, they can send existing clients to us to expand their early discovery services. There’s a tremendous synergy as a result of the merger.

B4B: Does the merger give you access to more clients?

Wentao: From our point of view, the merger is attractive and a win-win situation for both sides because we can cross-recommend clients to early stage where our focus lies or to later stage where Frontage’s focus lies. The merger positions the combined company to be more competitive compared to some of the global players like WuXi Apptech, Pharmaron, or Charles River.

B4B: How many people work at Quintara Discovery?

Wentao: Right now, we have about 23 full time employees. Our scientists are very productive and we have a lot of people who have worked for us for many years. One of the hallmarks of what we do is the execution and optimization of the workflow. Our employees are well trained in using automation and current technologies. I think that is the biggest asset that we have and differentiates us from other companies. The company prizes its small size and being in the hub of the Bay Area.

B4B: What are your plans in the year ahead?

Quintara Discovery’s HQ in Hayward, CA

Wentao: Even with the merger, we continue to operate independently and are financially independent as well. We do plan to grow substantially. We occupy about 17,000 square feet in Hayward and Frontage leased another 19,000 square feet next door to us. The plan is to expand both early-stage discovery services as well as GLP bioanalysis. We anticipate hiring probably 30 to 50 percent more in the next year. That’s a challenge in itself because of the talent pool. We are training some fresh college graduates. With proper training they can become fairly good at what they do in a short period of time.

What Quintara does is try to help the local community to accelerate their drug discovery efforts. We are very good at helping them in the very beginning. We also work with a lot of VCs when they are incubating companies that are still in stealth mode. They don’t need to hire people because we can do the early work until they reach the milestone for raising a series A round. So, we are very proud of being part of the local community that has been very active and productive. There’s a lot of growth and excitement in the biotech community here and we are in a good position to help people who have an idea to start a company, as well as assisting a company that wants to expand their drug discovery and drug development projects.

B4B: Is any idea too small for you or too big for you?

Wentao: We do work with global companies, some of the big biotech and pharma companies, as well as a one-person company, a professor, or even a post-doc. We are very flexible. It is a hallmark of what we do. No project is too big or too small for us. I spend a lot of time talking to aspiring entrepreneurs-to-be about the process—a free consultation kind of thing—giving back to the community, talking to the young students and post docs about their ideas and the excitements as well as caveats of starting their own company.

B4B: Wentao, thank you for your time.

Wentao: Thank you.