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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the June 30, 2004
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Stocks’ Unusual Family Farm
When you talk about a family business you think of an enterprise that
was passed from grandfather to father to son. You also think of a
retail or manufacturing business or even a law practice. You don’t
think of a biotech startup run by two brothers and one of their sons.
Two brothers in a biotech — and they are not scions of the
pharmaceutical industry? Unlikely, but happening.
Jeff and Greg Stock went to Johns Hopkins, graduating in 1968 and 1971
respectively, with Jeff majoring in biochemistry, Greg in biophysics.
Then they went their separate ways. Jeff stayed in the lab and came to
Princeton University, and Greg combined bio with business, turned his
attention to public policy, and became a best selling author, starting
with the “Book of Questions” series.
Together the brothers have started Signum Biosciences at Princeton
Corporate Plaza. The core technology comes from Jeff’s laboratory and
is licensed from Princeton University. Maxwell Stock — Jeff’s son, and
Greg’s nephew — is the vice president and runs the lab. Greg is the
president and CEO.
“We waited a long time to go into business together,” says Greg Stock.
“I had always heard it was not a good idea to go into business with
“The exchanges that we have on strategic issues — related to the
science we are trying to drive, the finances and how we are
approaching it — are very creative,” says Stock. “When you really
trust people, you can argue, discuss things, fight about them, and
ultimately come up with a strong product. You don’t have to watch your
back. Someone is going to tell you when you are out of line, or when
you are full of it. We have an intimacy of connection on every aspect
— science and business — functioning on day to day basis.”
By modulating a key regulatory process known as reversible protein
methylation, Signum Biosciences hopes to develop a whole suite of
therapeutics. In addition to working on pharmaceutical and botanical
drugs for Alzheimer’s and other dementia, Parkinson’s, and a new class
of anti-inflammatories, Signum might also produce nutritional
supplements that would be available to consumers much sooner.
About 10 people work here now, including those brought in from the
outside, and the Stock brothers are tapping their networks for
consulting services. Greg Stock, who is the spokesperson for the
company, is moving with his wife to Princeton from California.
Recently the brothers expanded the laboratory from 1,000 to 2,000
square feet at Princeton Corporate Plaza. “Having an incubator
environment is what we need, and the landlord is very supportive
here,” says Greg Stock. “We moved to larger space seamlessly.”
Stock says he bases his pitch to investors on his brother’s and his
own reputation and a “really solid” business proposal, “what we are
doing and how we will go about doing it.”
The company raised its first round of financing and will be going for
a Series B round in late fall. The initial $1.5 million came from
angel investors with whom Greg Stock had had previous contacts. They
include Pierluigi Zappacosta (the founder of Logitech) and the unnamed
owner of a hedge fund in Princeton.
Angel money is good, venture capital money is not, Stock believes.
“Venture capital money wants all sorts of control, and what is
important about this company is that we really have control. It is
difficult when business people don’t understand your science.”
One way not to have to tap venture capital is to spend carefully. “We
have a modest burn rate,” says Stock, who has seen indications that it
is easier to set up a company on a small budget than a big one. Some
companies that raised a lot of money in the beginning have gone out of
business because they had bad spending patterns. “I can think of one
that had $40 million and is no longer here.”
Signum is using screening tools, developed in Jeff Stock’s lab and
licensed from Princeton University, to work on both drug therapies and
dietary supplements. “We have identified certain botanicals (plant
extracts) that are likely to contain therapeutic agents for
Alzheimer’s and other diseases that we are interested in.”
“The fact that some of them have had a strong effect on the
biochemistry we are targeting has validated our confidence in our
screens,” he explains. “Now we are going in to see how these compounds
actually work, not only in vitro — we are proceeding to tissue culture
and mouse model experiments as well.”
“The key has been to find the right compounds to investigate. We are
looking at the biochemistry of two major sites where reversible
protein methylation occurs, and exploring how this affects critical
regulatory pathways, and this approach is proving very fruitful. We
have already identified a new class of anti inflammatories and a
strong therapeutic candidate for Alzheimer’s, which is pretty damn
exciting,” says Stock.
“Although we have been successful in mining the botanical realm, which
incidentally is the source of almost half of our current drugs, we are
not neglecting the traditional pharma libraries.”
One source of new compounds could be Signum’s collaboration with Ilya
Raskin and other researchers from Rutgers to screen plant extracts
from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Signum is one the screening partners
for the $3.5 million, five-year grant by the Interagency Biodiversity
Program, and it will do assays for mental disorders and
anti-inflammatories using its proprietary methlyation screens.
But Stock notes that the company’s early work is showing that many of
the most interesting active botanical compounds are in plants that are
already well known, the ones “right under our noses,” he says.
“Searching among agents with a long history of human use gives us a
jump start. When we find agents in these products they are essentially
prequalified, and we are much more likely to have something that
eventually will turn into a useful therapeutic,” says Stock.
“As a partner, Princeton University has been very cooperative,” says
Stock. Partnering with academe is a “one hand washes the other”
proposition. How it works: Scientists at a university do basic
research that is available for anyone to use. Then a biotech licenses
the research to make proprietary products.
“Feedback goes both ways. Some of the work we are doing is identifying
basic research problems that will be interesting to pursue in academic
collaborations,” says Stock. “It’s a virtuous circle. Effective basic
research produces understanding that can influence the product
development in the same way that our screening agents bring up
interesting topics for basic research.”
The hotbeds for these kinds of associations are in Stanford and
Boston. “These are the synergies that fuel real development in both
realms. But it seems like New Jersey is quite supportive,” says Stock,
who is applying for a New Jersey Springboard Development Grant.
The grandfather of Jeff and Greg Stock was a journalist. Their father
was an electrical engineer, and their mother majored in economics at
the University of Chicago. One uncle wrote a textbook on oceanography,
and another uncle wrote a physics text. “Our family valued research
and science a great deal,” says Stock.
Born three years apart, they moved from California to Arizona, but
spent their early teenage years in Great Britain, where they learned
to play rugby. They went to public high school in Baltimore and stayed
in Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins.
Jeffry Stock did his biochemistry PhD with Sol Roseman at Johns
Hopkins, and a post doc in Berkeley with Dan Koshland Jr., for a long
time the editor of Science. A professor in the department of molecular
biology at Princeton for 20 years, he is a recognized expert on
bacterial chemotaxis (the ability of bacteria to sense specific
chemicals and move towards them). This led directly into his current
work in eukaryotic cell regulation, specifically reversible protein
methylation, which is an ancient regulatory architecture that is
critical to all cell-cell communication as well as many other
important cellular processes.
In 1992, with Arnold Levine, Jeff Stock co-founded Cadus
Pharmaceuticals, a company that operated in Manhattan from 1992 to
Jeff, who was not interviewed for this story, has two children,
Katherine is married to an attorney and lives in Colorado. Maxwell
went to the University of Colorado and worked at Synergen in Boulder.
He and his wife, Lisa, are expecting their second child. They moved to
Princeton because of Signum, and he is running the Signum laboratory
Greg did his doctoral thesis in developmental biology (limb
regeneration in newts) at the University of California at Irvine. He
earned his Harvard MBA when he was 36 years old. About that time he
published his first “Book of Questions,” designed to prove one’s basic
values. A best seller, it became a series, and it sold 2 million
copies in 55 printings and was translated in 17 languages. Then Greg
Stock began writing about how technology and science will affect
society, starting with “Metaman,” on the merging of humans and
machines into a global super organism, published in 1993. His most
recent book is “Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future.”
Lately he has focused on genomics and implications for public policy,
and he is called on to give keynote speeches at pharmaceutical
conventions. At present he directs the Program on Medicine,
Technology, and Society at the UCLA School of Public Health. Greg and
his wife, Lori Fish, and their infant daughter are moving to
Signum is not gearing up to groom itself for a quick sale, though Jeff
Stock’s previous company, Cadus, sold off its assets after only six
years. “We don’t have any intention of selling the company, though we
will eventually do an IPO,” says Greg Stock.
Along the path to drug development, the Stocks hope to spin off
various botanical extracts as dietary supplements. These
over-the-counter products, used for everything from wrinkle creams to
aching joints, can reach people quickly because they do not need FDA
approval, but they can make no medical claims, no matter how strong
the indications might be of their efficacy. The key here, says Stock,
is to be very sure about safety.
“Only where the risks are not significant because of a long history of
prior use and solid toxicology research, and only where the potential
rewards are substantial enough that we ourselves will want to take the
substance will we consider marketing a botanical extract as a
supplement,” says Stock.
The important thing will be to insure that any supplement is rooted in
strong science, that it is absolutely safe, “and that it has strong
enough indications of efficacy that the potential rewards far outweigh
the risks,” he says.
The company has already been in early discussions about potential
licensing of supplements to get cash flow, and Stock is exploring
marketing collaborations with consumer products companies.
A collaboration between brothers and son/nephew is indeed very
unusual, Greg Stock agrees. “It surprises me how well it is working,
that our expertises are so complementary, intersecting in a very nice
way. I really THOUGHT it would work. but sometimes things work even
more than you could have hoped, and that’s the case here.”
Signum Biosciences, 1 Deer Park Drive, Princeton Corporate Plaza,
Suite L-2, Monmouth Junction 08852. Maxwell Stock, vice president.
732-329-6344; fax, 732-329-8344. www.signumbiosciences.com
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