New kid on the block: Inside the city’s hottest biotech startup

 

 

Each week the Acorn Newspapers presents a new episode of “Branching Out,” a podcast that explores the issues in our community and the people who make the news. In this installment, Thousand Oaks Acorn editor Kyle Jorrey sits down with Rob Murphy of Capsida Biotherapeutics, a Thousand Oaks-based startup, to discuss the early days of Amgen, the genesis of Capsida and the biotech boom happening in the Conejo Valley.

Jorrey: Give me a little bit of your backstory.

Murphy: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and I went to the University of Missouri and studied biochemistry. I moved out here in 1990 to work for Amgen, which was a really exciting time. Amgen had one drug approved and hadn’t won the patent battle on that particular drug yet. So I was there when the patent battle was won and when the next drug was approved. I sometimes tend to exaggerate when I’m telling stories, but I think our stock went up like 40 points that day.

I left Amgen four years ago and didn’t really know what I was going to do. I thought maybe I’d travel the world. But with the kids going to college, it’s quite expensive, so I started to do some consulting. During that process, a friend of mine from Westlake Village BioPartners, which is a venture capital company, called and said they were going to put together this company called Capsida and wanted me to help them do that.

Jorrey: Tell us a little bit about Capsida. Obviously, biotech is unlike any startup any business in that you have a vision for a product, it’s not there, but you have to get to it, you’ve got to reach it. It’s going to solve a certain problem or, in this case, treat a disease or cure a disease. At Capsida, what kind of technology are guys are trying to develop?

Murphy: The area that we work in is called gene therapy. What we’re trying to do is deliver a gene to a specific part of your body that has either a defective gene or replace a gene you’ve been missing since birth. That’s kind of the easiest way to explain it. Our technology came from Caltech, out of a lab run by Viviana Gradinaru and her two grad students, Nicholas Flytzanis and Nick Goeden. Those are the founders of our company.

The technology deals with capsid engineering. The best way to explain it is if you’ve ever seen a picture of the COVID-19 virus with the spikes on it, that outside shell is the capsid. If you do the engineering correctly, and you do a screening of millions and millions of different variations on this, you can create a capsid that can bind to different cell types in your body.

That’s super important because you’re trying to replace or add a gene that’s missing in a certain part of your body, let’s say your brain, so you need to be able to get that gene to your brain. The reason why that’s important is because the gene inside the cell in your brain is responsible for making a protein that maybe allows your neurons to fire correctly. That allows your body to work correctly.

There’s something like 7,000 different rare diseases that are genetically related that just haven’t been treated yet. The symptoms have been treated—like a learning disability or you can’t walk or you have seizures—you do your best to treat that. But now we’re getting to the point in technology where those diseases should be curable, which is just unbelievable.

Jorrey: What are the some of the big diseases you’re hoping you might be able to help with?

Murphy: The original diseases that people target with this are hemophilia A and B, Parkinson’s disease. Then there are a bunch of disorders in children, like epilepsy or learning disorders. And those diseases all have names that don’t really roll off your tongue. There’s some ophthalmology diseases that people are targeting. Eventually when we get this thing working, we could target diabetes, which probably has a strong genetic link. ALS, too. There’s a lot out there.

Jorrey: Obviously you have an altruistic reason for doing this. I think if I talk to anyone in biotech, they always say they love doing this because they’re doing something that’s going to change the world and save lives. But you can’t do that without money, without cash—especially a company in your position. I want to touch a little on Westlake Village BioPartners. They’ve obviously had a huge hand, not only with Capsida, but with this biotech boom in the Conejo Valley.

Murphy: Yeah, absolutely. Beth Seidenberg and Sean Harper are the two principal at BioPartners and they were both at Amgen while I was there. They’re brilliant, brilliant people, and they started this venture capital company.

I think they have like over $800 million now to invest in companies. I think they’re up to something like 22 companies that they’ve invested in so far, and they have just an unbelievably positive track record on what they’ve done so far. To have that in our own backyard is incredible.

When you ask why is biotech kind of blooming right now, it’s because we have the people, we have the money and we have, you know, the facilities that are being built or are built around here. You need all those legs of the stool to be successful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the complete podcast and other episodes at buzzsprout.com/396817.