The path to greatness in biotechnology runs through a vale of tears. Mark Levin wants to remember that.
So once every few months the 40-person staff of Levin’s venture capital firm, Third Rock Ventures, gathers silently to listen. Their speaker last September was Peter Frates, a 29-year-old former captain of the Boston College baseball team. In a voice slurred by spreading paralysis, Frates recalled how his doctors told him, “You have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” and then sent him home. There was nothing to do.
Inventing a treatment for ALS is immensely challenging. Most drugs fail. Even so, Third Rock intends to try. Since 2006, Levin and cofounders Kevin Starr and Bob Tepper have backed 32 companies that have 25 products in human trials. Its newest venture, Voyager Therapeutics, is typically ambitious: it will have $45 million to try to develop a gene therapy for nervous-system disorders such as ALS. Levin himself will be the CEO.
“The big difference is they go in on their own, and they go in big,” says Amber Salzman, a biotech executive whose son was born with adrenoleukodystrophy. That heartbreaking inherited disease is now in the sights of Bluebird Bio, a gene therapy company that went public last June—one of three IPOs for Third Rock startups last year.
Levin grew up in St. Louis, son of a small-time entrepreneur who sold shoes. He bought a doughnut shop and worked in process engineering at Miller Brewing before making a name as a dealmaker in California’s early biotech scene. “That was a crazy time, when anything was possible,” he says.
A similar spirit pervades Third Rock’s warren of offices in a Boston brownstone. A gumball machine at the entrance declares it an entrepreneurial space. Slogans on the wall say “Do the right thing” and “Make them raving fans.” Levin, immensely rich from companies he’s sold, comes to the office in outrageous jewelry and neon sneakers.
Third Rock has a unique approach to sizing up emerging technologies. The firm cultivates a long to-do list of ideas, like one for “personalized vaccines” and one for a “molecular stethoscope.” It then spends three or four years studying the science and the markets, and seducing the world’s leading experts to sign on.
“Some people can spot what is going to be extraordinary in five or 10 years,” says Gregory Verdine, a chemistry professor who was lured out of a tenured position at Harvard to run another Third Rock company, Warp Drive Bio. “And then there are those who can imagine it and actually build it.”
Verdine puts Levin in the category of great leaders, citing his ability to attract the best people to his causes. He is “an extraordinarily empathetic person,” Verdine says, “who wants to leave his mark on biotech.”
“We’re always listening to the experts, watching them, hearing them talk about the genetics, the biology, or what’s happening in chemistry. You can just feel it if we are on the edge of something. It’s a visceral experience.”—Mark Levin