By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2017, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Seated next to each other on a stage Tuesday morning at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation were the alpha and omega of Oklahoma City’s Selexys Pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Rodger P. McEver and Russell Rother shared the stage as part of a panel discussion on “Relationship Dynamics in Startups: Early Stage to Exit” at the OMRF BioVenture Forum 2017. About 100 people attended the forum, including 35 venture capitalists from out of state.
Others on the panel, moderated by i2E Inc. CEO Scott Meacham, included Dr. Judith A. James, chair of OMRF’s Arthritis and Clinical Immunology Research Program, and Mohan Purushothaman, president of Progentec Diagnostics.
“We’re focusing on the handoff that has to occur in any successful launch of a new technology where you go from a researcher to a business person who is going to take the deal forward,” Meacham said. “That’s a vital process and often time difficult process.”
McEver and Rother represented the beginning and successful exit from Selexys, which was acquired in late 2016 by Novartis Pharmaceuticals for $665 million, the largest life sciences deal in Oklahoma history.
McEver, now OMRF’s vice president of research, discovered the protein P-selectin upon which Selexys was founded. The company developed a therapeutic to relieve pain crisis for millions of people worldwide who suffer from sickle cell disease.
McEver was a co-founder of Selexys and eventually handed the company off to a team that included Rother, Scott Rollins and Rick Alvarez. McEver served on the Selexys board of directors.
Rother, now executive vice president and chief operating officer of Oklahoma City’s Tetherex Pharmaceuticals, held the same position with Selexys. He was instrumental in the scientific, clinical and regulatory operations that led to the successful Phase 2 trial and subsequent acquisition by industry giant Novartis.
“Early on, the insight and expertise of a scientist like Rod is critical for a startup company,” Rother said. “I think that’s an important component because the early stages of the company and early funding are driven by the scientist.”
Progentec Diagnostics is at a much earlier stage of development as it works to commercialize the technology of OMRF’s James. She created algorithms for predicting lupus disease flares, disease activity and onset.
James connected with Progentec after seeking business assistance from Manu Nair, OMRF’s vice president of Technology Ventures in commercializing her technology.
“We decided we needed to bring in expertise that could really help us take something that we saw that could be really important to our patients,” she said. “Since we were early, we needed a partner and that’s how we found Progentec.”
Nair organized the BioVenture Forum to showcase Oklahoma scientific achievements like those of McEver and James to an audience of potential investors. The event featured four panel discussions, a luncheon keynote by Dr. Joseph Miletich with Merck & Co., and an evening reception at the Pavilion at the Governor’s Mansion.
“When people think of Oklahoma, they think of oil and gas,” Nair said. “We want them to see a biotech mecca here, as well.”