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Tiny start-up lands a former Vertex CEO

Joshua Boger is joining Alkeus.
Joshua Boger is joining Alkeus.

Joshua Boger’s retirement plans didn’t work out the way he expected.

Boger stepped down three years ago as chief executive of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., the company he founded in 1989 that now has a blockbuster hepatitis C drug and a new treatment for cystic fibrosis.

He planned to spend his time working on nonprofit ventures and heads the boards at Wesleyan University and Harvard Medical School. While still on Vertex’s board, Boger was not looking for new opportunities in the drug business.

But now Boger is starting on the ground floor again. A start-up company, Alkeus Pharmaceuticals Inc., will announce today that Boger has become its executive chairman and help its development of a drug to treat a disease that leads to blindness among children and young adults.


“In order to keep my life simple, I wasn’t going to get back into business,” Boger said. “I wasn’t even going to consult. But this just hit too many buttons for me; it broke me down. I think I can make a difference in a role that takes advantage of things I really know how to do.”

Boger’s position brings Alkeus’s workforce to a grand total of two: The other is company founder Leonid Saad. The company is so fresh that it does not even have its own office.

Saad formed Alkeus to develop a drug based on research by Columbia University chemist Ilyas Washington on Stargardt disease, a leading cause of juvenile macular degeneration.

He took an unusual approach to get Boger’s attention last year. Saad entered Alkeus in MassChallenge, a competition for tech start-ups that offers financing awards to top entries. Boger was serving as a judge, evaluating finalists, so Saad needed to reach the late rounds of competition to get his attention.

In fact, Alkeus emerged as a MassChallenge winner, gaining Boger’s attention and a funding award.


“I handed him a $100,000 check last October,” Boger said. “After that, he started harassing me to get involved in the company.”

Boger said he made a “small investment” in Alkeus, and the company has enough money for now to begin a clinical trial to establish a proof of concept for a compound it calls ALK-001. He said the company hopes to begin those trials later this year or early in 2013.

Stargardt patients suffer from a genetic mutation that causes a malfunction of a protein used to recycle vitamin A in the eye. That problem leads to a formation of toxic deposits, followed by the loss of sight. It affects about one in 10,000 children, and there are about 30,000 cases in the United States.

Alkeus hopes its compound can prevent the formation of toxins and slow vision loss.

Stargardt disease is an untreatable progressive and irreversible genetic condition that leads to blindness. Most patients experience initial visual symptoms by age 20.

Boger was struck by the similarities with cystic fibrosis, another progressive genetic disease that strikes young people. “There are so many parallels to CF it’s eerie,” he said.

Boger described his role at Alkeus as a chairman “with my finger in the pie” and said he dedicates time every week to work on the business. “I am down in the operational details.”

Steven Syre can be reached at syre@globe.com.