Like many in the Vermont biosciences community, Mark Allegretta, President and Chief Scientific Officer of BioMosaics is a biotechnology entrepreneur. He describes working in start-up companies with their inherent risk as his professional comfort zone. In fact Mark cofounded his first start-up venture in the Boston area, Endogen, just a few years after finishing his undergraduate degree. Like many start-ups, Endogen was created to address a specific need—in this case, detecting recombinant cytokines and related proteins in the first wave of their use as therapeutic agents in humans.
Subsequently, Mark developed strong ties to Vermont as a PhD student in the Cellular and Molecular Biology program at UVM. He chose UVM both for broad-based educational opportunities it offered and for the Vermont landscape and lifestyle. In addition to gaining the cell and molecular biology background that Mark sought in his PhD program, his work at UVM also furthered his business education. Part of his research involved developing intellectual property in a licensing arrangement with Immune Response Corporation.
With his Ph.D. in hand, Mark headed west to Stanford University for a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Larry Steinman. Once again, Mark found himself in an applied research setting, working on projects with clear clinical and commercial applications. In addition, his PI was heavily involved with biotechnology entrepreneurship, serving on the board of one company and in the process of launching a second.
With his background at the interface of research science and clinical applications, Mark sought a position at an early-stage company. He was fully aware of the risks and actively sought an opportunity to jump in at what he calls “the steep part of the curve.” He found it at a Bay area startup called Connetics Corporation. Mark quickly moved into a project management role and during his 3 years with Connetics, he participated in virtually every functional domain in small biotechnology businesses: licensing, business development, intellectual property protection, managing outsourcing relationships, and (of course) developing funding partnerships.
You can likely predict where this story is headed…after 8 years in California, Mark’s children were approaching school age and it was time to move back east. Mark knew he was ready for the risks and rewards of starting his own biotechnology venture, and the lure of Burlington Vermont outweighed its disadvantages in terms of limited access to venture capital availability and barely nascent biotechnology sector.
Mark reconnected with his venture-minded PhD thesis advisor, Richard Albertini, and launched BioMosaics, a cancer biomarker development company, in 2000. Early on, BioMosaics received some SBIR funding to get started, and conducted contract research in genetic toxicology. These projects served to validate their scientific capabilities for potential clients and provided a means for valuating the company and thereby raise seed money for expansion.
The decision in 2003 to license Glypican-3 (GPC3), a promising biomarker for early liver cancer, turned out to be very important for BioMosaics. Looking back on the last 9 years, Mark greatly appreciates the global development effort that has taken place, advancing GPC3 from a potential marker for hepatocellular carcinoma to its present-day status as a validated histochemical biomarker for detection of early-stage liver cancer detection in at-risk patients. Further validating this effort, the protein has been chosen as a target for therapeutic antibodies by 3 different pharmaceutical companies.
When asked to describe one of BioMosaics’s most important milestones, Mark cites the successful effort to obtain intellectual property protection for GPC3 in China, Japan, and most recently, the United States. He describes it as “a global effort—a significant undertaking that was necessary because half of all liver cancer cases are in China, many are in Japan, and it’s one of the few cancers that’s actually rising in prevalence in North America” He is also very proud of his company’s contribution to the fight against hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death and is becoming more prevalent because of increases in the number of people with hepatitis B or C infection, obesity, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Unlike GPC3 development, all of the work on BioMosaic’s hottest new biomarker initiative will take place right here in Vermont. Mark credits the Vermont Bioscience Alliance with providing another way for him to develop relationships in the local biotech community—some of which can ultimately lead to important business partnerships such as the ones he’s formed with UVM and Green Mountain Antibodies to explore a new biomarker for breast cancer drug sensitivity. There are advantages and disadvantages to starting a new company in a small state like Vermont. It can be hard to attract venture capital and there is a limited pool of industry resources. On the positive side, it’s relatively easy to identify the best local sources of the resources that we do have and to develop relationships that have the potential to expand opportunity for all of us.
Written by Lori Martin