The first offices of OvaScience, in East Cambridge, didn’t have the company’s name on the door. Somehow, says chief executive Michelle Dipp, women still managed to find the small biotech company and show up to ask questions. Their motivation: having a baby.
OvaScience is developing a treatment to improve the odds for women to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Each day, says Dipp, she receives at least 10 e-mails from women who want to participate in the company’s first clinical trials.
“We are dealing with a fundamental evolutionary desire,” Dipp says. “A lot of women really want to have kids.”
This potent combination of biology and biotechnology has helped make OvaScience one of the hottest young companies on the Cambridge biotech scene. OvaScience has raised $40 million this year alone, and hopes to land on the Nasdaq stock exchange by early next year. If it does, Dipp, 36, would be among the youngest CEOs of a public company in Massachusetts.
“She’s extremely driven and wants to be successful,” says Stephen Kraus, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners in Cambridge, which has put money into OvaScience. “We thought the science they are working on was very intriguing, but our investment was also a bet on Michelle, for sure.”
Dipp grew up in El Paso. Her mother was an emergency-room nurse and her father ran family real estate businesses and a pecan farm. “I was a classic science geek,” she says.
Rejected by Harvard, she went to Oxford University instead, earning a medical degree and a doctorate, with a dissertation on pulmonary hypertension. She came back to the United States to work at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company that sought to commercialize Harvard research into chemical compounds that seemed to slow the aging process. Dipp helped the company forge partnerships with larger pharmaceutical companies, and also handled investor and media relations. Sirtris went public in 2007, and a year later was acquired by GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million.
Dipp stayed at Glaxo for a few years, leaving in 2011 to run a venture capital fund with Sirtris founders Christoph Westphal and Rich Aldrich. Longwood Fund raised $85 million to invest in new companies that the trio would launch themselves, often based on academic breakthroughs. OvaScience is the third company that Longwood has spawned. The first was acquired by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., and the second, Cambridge-based Verastem, went public in January, though it is still developing its first cancer drug.
Dipp has the ability to communicate complex scientific ideas in a way that’s clear even to listeners who may not have earned A’s in biology. She also has a poise that seems ready-made for CNBC.
“Every entrepreneur has to be a promoter, a cheerleader, and an optimist,” says Kraus at Bessemer. “Michelle is, but she is also really deep in substance.”
Dipp, who is single, observes that there are about 1.2 million women in the United States who seek treatment for infertility each year. They go through about 150,000 cycles of in vitro fertilization, in which they take hormones to “hyper-stimulate” egg production. Eggs are extracted from their ovaries and injected with a single sperm. The resulting embryos are then transferred to the woman’s uterus, where one — or more — may develop into a fetus.
OvaScience wants to address two of the big issues with IVF. The first is that about 30 percent of women in the United States end up with twins or triplets. The second, Dipp said, is that “once you hit 36, the decline of IVF’s success rate is rapid,” because eggs become less viable as women age.
OvaScience is developing a process to improve the odds. It involves first taking a small biopsy of ovarian tissue, about the size of a fingernail clipping, and then isolating what the company terms “egg precursor cells,” which can eventually mature into eggs. OvaScience plans to extract the mitochondria, the cell’s key energy source, from those cells and inject it into the eggs that are being used in the traditional IVF procedure.
Dipp calls it “an energy boost,” and the company hopes it could improve the success rate for older women while reducing the number of embryos that need to be transferred to the uterus — meaning fewer multiple births.
OvaScience is getting ready to begin a first study of 80 women between the ages of 38 and 42 at two IVF clinics, one in Boston. (Dipp declined to name the clinics.) Forty patients will go through the standard IVF process, and 40 will have additional mitochondria injected into their eggs. Data on the outcome of the trial won’t be available until 2014.
OvaScience is seeking to go public this fall in an unusual way, through a process called Form 10.
Even seasoned investors like Aldrich, the Longwood Fund cofounder, say they haven’t had much experience with it.
The goal is to avoid some of the expense and uncertainty of a traditional initial public offering, while giving investors a tradable currency. The company sells shares to investors at a set price — in OvaScience’s case, $5.50 — and then registers those shares to be traded on the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board market. As soon as the company meets the requirements of the Nasdaq market, it can graduate to the higher-profile exchange — perhaps as soon as next year.
OvaScience’s approach to assisting with IVF “has the potential to revolutionize a multibillion-dollar market,” says John Simon at General Catalyst, a Cambridge venture capital firm and OvaScience investor.
“The market itself has a chance to grow, because some people stop today because of IVF’s low success rate,’’ Simon said. “If this company does as well as it is anticipating in clinical trials, it’d be a terrific story.”
And it would make Dipp the first of a new generation of biotech CEOs in Cambridge.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.