There are many adages in the early-stage venture capital business. One of them is to keep the leading researchers, often the scientific founders of these early-stage companies, in their labs rather than having them join the start-up company. It is argued that their contribution to the start-up can be greater by continuing to perform novel research in the research lab rather than moving to the company, which will need to be focused on bringing a product to market.
In the case of Peter Seeberger, the scientific founder of our portfolio company, Ancora Pharmaceuticals, one might also say that society is also better off by having had him stay in research. Harris & Harris Group invested in Ancora in 2007. Although one of Peter’s student’s joined Ancora, Peter continued his work in academia.
In the January 23, 2012, issue of Chemical & Engineering News it was reported that Peter Seeberger and François Lévesque have developed a continuous-flow synthetic production method for making artemisinin. This method should make producing artemisinin easier and less expensive. Artemisinin is currently the most effective treatment for multi-drug resistant forms of malaria.
A semisynthetic route to producing artemisinin was originally discovered by Jay Keasling, a scientific founder of Amyris, and another researcher that stayed in the research environment rather than joining his start-up full time. Peter Seeberger and François Lévesque have now devised a way to combine three of the synthetic reactions – photochemically induced oxidation with singlet oxygen, acid-mediated cleavage of an oxygen-oxygen bond, and oxidation with triplet oxygen – into a single continuous-flow process en route to converting artemisinic acid into artemisinin. Their continuous-flow reactor can produce 800 grams of artemisinin per day, and Peter estimates in the article that it will take 400 such reactors to make the world’s supply of artemisinin.
Ancora Pharmaceuticals was founded on Peter’s original breakthroughs in making synthetic carbohydrates with an automated synthesizer. I would posit that it is in part this early work that led the way for using a continuous flow reactor to synthesize artemisinin. Looking back, it is good that Peter continued his work in the research lab. Society’s battle against malaria may be better fought with this new research.
At the end of the Chemical & Engineering article Peter Seeberger says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg… I believe there are many other drugs that could be made in this way.” We could not agree more. Ancora is currently using Peter’s synthetic methods to create some of the world’s first synthetic vaccines. We wish you well Peter Seeberger.