A company that uses tobacco plants to fight cancer? It sounds unlikely, but it’s true. The company is Chlorogen, a client of the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, an incubator in St. Louis devoted to life science technologies.
Chlorogen has patented a process called chloroplast transformation technology (CTT), which genetically alters tobacco plants to produce proteins that can be used to fight certain cancers. Another benefit of CTT: Because the modified cells are not used in a plant’s reproductive system, the genetic changes can’t be spread through cross pollination. CTT allows more efficient production of certain molecules than other current methods, which use mammalian or yeast cells.
Chlorogen has been based at Nidus since 2003, when David Duncan was named its CEO. In 2000, Duncan retired from Monsanto, a St. Louis-based agricultural product and biotechnology company and the Nidus Center’s lead sponsor. He founded a company at Nidus shortly thereafter. Though his new venture eventually fell through, in the course of raising money for it Duncan came in contact with the venture capital firm Burrill and Co. In his later role as Nidus’ first CEO in residence, he had additional dealings with Burrill and Co., and eventually the firm asked him to take the lead at Chlorogen, a Florida company founded in 2001 and in need of new management.
It was Duncan’s decision to move the company to Nidus. "If you’re going to be in the plant science business, you ought to be in St. Louis," he says, "because of the breadth and depth of resources." He says Nidus is in a particularly great area, on the campus of Monsanto and across from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The incubator was able to provide the wet lab space Chlorogen needed, and from his previous experience there Duncan knew how helpful the staff could be. "The general location, facilities and expertise all added up to St. Louis as the place we needed to be," he says.
The company has flourished since the move. Chlorogen successfully closed a $5.8 million round of financing in 2003 to support a technology and commercial development program, and the company quickly moved on to close a second, $6 million round last December. Duncan says this was a direct result of the venture capital connections his company met through Nidus.
Those venture capital connections, Duncan says, are what especially make his company better prepared than others. "It brings an undeniable rigor to the operations of the company," he says. "The VCs force you to develop very clear milestones and then hold you to them."
The company also recently announced a partnership with Sigma-Aldrich Corp., a St. Louis-based distributor of biochemical and organic chemical products. Chlorogen will produce nontherapeutic proteins for Sigma-Aldrich, which can be used in research to develop the therapeutic proteins administered for the cure and prevention of diseases. Because nontherapeutic proteins do not require FDA approval, they can be commercialized much more quickly than therapeutic ones. This partnership will represent the first commercial production of CTT.
"Dave actually has been able to do the transition from a large company to a small one," says Robert Calcaterra, president and CEO of the Nidus Center. "He thinks strategically ... he’s very skillful at figuring out ways to do what he wants to do even though there are more limited resources." He cites the Sigma-Aldrich partnership as an example, with Duncan trading off some commercial rights in order to expand research capabilities.
Chlorogen’s graduation is projected for 2007 or early 2008, and Nidus is helping the company acquire lab space via Calcaterra’s involvement in an effort to make more lab space available in St. Louis. "We need wet lab space, and it is at a premium right now," Duncan says. Chlorogen is also moving forward on plans to build a manufacturing plant in Cape Girardeau, Mo., about 100 miles south of St. Louis. With both new projects, Chlorogen could add 25 new jobs to the area over the next two to three years.
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