CoLucid Pharmaceuticals Inc., a drug development company Eli Lilly and Co. spun out last year, has attracted Jim White as its first CEO. White was a longtime Lilly executive before spending the past five years in Boston helping grow Hypnion Inc., another pharmaceutical startup that so far has attracted $80 million from venture capitalists.
“We have a lot of great talent in the state that leaves because we haven’t had the kind of jobs to retain those folks,” White said. “But all the ingredients are there in Indiana. Now it’s beginning to come together.”
White, 53, is exactly the sort of home-grown manager BioCrossroads has hoped would return to join its biotech push. Raised in Greenfield, he began climbing the Lilly ladder even before he graduated from high school. But he left when he could ascend no further.
Now he has a chance to return and, ironically, build a new company around a drug for migraine headaches he oversaw during its earliest days of devel- opment at Lilly.
White will have plenty of cash to get his company started. In January, BioCrossroads announced CoLucid had raised $16.5 million from a syndicate of venture capitalists-more than any Indiana life sciences startup in the last decade. Three of the venture capital firms were backed by BioCrossroads’ Indiana Future Fund.
CoLucid will be based in Indianapolis, though it has not set up offices yet. White is the first employee, and only a handful of others are likely to come on board over the next year. But if all goes well, the company long term could grow into a major employer of highly paid, highly educated workers.
“Early-stage companies are all about the senior teams and management,” said Tim Tichenor, managing director of Indianapolis-based and IFF-backed Pearl Street Venture Partners, one of CoLucid’s investors. “Jim White having a strong track record at Eli Lilly is a huge plus, given this is still a spinout of Lilly.”
“He’s proven that he can contribute to teams that not only move compounds forward, but also as part of a team raising rounds of capital,” Tichenor added. “He will do an outstanding job building value with CoLucid.”
White said he first took an interest in drug development in high school. Living near Lilly’s Greenfield facility, he sought help from some of its scientists for a high school science project. They inspired him to study toxicology and pharmacology at Purdue University, and later recruited him to Lilly’s ranks.
He spent more than 20 years with the company, rising to become its director of central nervous system discovery research. White managed a team of 300 and helped steer development of neuroscience drugs like the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication Strattera and the antidepressant Cymbalta.
“I don’t want to take too much credit,” he said. “It was just a massive team effort.”
J. David Leander, a longtime colleague, now runs an Indianapolis-based life sciences consulting firm, Skagit Neuropharm Consulting LLC. Together with BioCrossroads Chairman Gus Watanabe, White’s former boss at Lilly, Leander helped recruit White to CoLucid.
Leander remembers the circumstances in 2001 that led to White’s departure after 10 years leading the Neuroscience Division. “He didn’t see many opportunities at Lilly left for him,” Leander said. “It was just a logjam ahead of him.” Through a spokesman, Lilly declined IBJ’s request for comment. Enter Hypnion, which recruited White in 2001 to serve as vice president of research and development and chief operating officer. Hypnion is attempting to commercialize a drug aimed at thwarting insomnia. White said pursuing such challenges had long been his dream. “I just really liked the idea of leveraging the experience I had at Lilly. The Boston area was attractive and my son was going into junior high. It was a natural breaking point,” White said. “At some point, you have to actually do it, try it and see if you’re any good at it.”
In his time with Hypnion, White has overseen half a dozen sleep drugs as they progressed through development. The ripest is just now entering its phase two clinical trials.
He foresees a similar path for CoLucid’s migraine drug. It generally takes 10 years or more to move a new drug from the laboratory through regulatory approvals and finally onto the market.
That means if things go as planned for CoLucid, $16.5 million is just the beginning. It will likely have to return to the venture market more than once to raise additional money.
“It will take many more investments like that to get this off the ground,” White said.
For now, though, White wants to keep the company small. He plans to spend the rest of this year overseeing early clinical trials in Europe. CoLucid also is attempting to develop several other compounds it acquired from Providence, R.I.-based Sention Inc.
“It’s very important that we be cautious in spending the money before we move forward with any big hires or expansion,” said Art Pappas, managing director of Research Triangle, N.C.-based Pappas Ventures, an IFF-backed CoLucid investor.
But with White at the helm, Leander said, CoLucid now has a much greater chance for success.
“It’s still risky business. The compound could [show] some fatal flaw tomorrow, and that would be the end of the company. Those things still can turn up, even with the greatest of management,” Leander said. “But if you add value, you can live for another day.”