Steven H. Holtzman, one of the best-known figures in Boston-area biotechnology, has been named chief executive of Decibel Therapeutics Inc., a Cambridge company launched last year to develop hearing loss therapies.
Holtzman, 62, recently left Biogen Inc., where he served as executive vice president for corporate development. Earlier in his career, he founded and was CEO of Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. and before that was chief business officer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc.
At Decibel, which announced the appointment Wednesday, Holtzman will focus on developing drugs to protect hearing and repair hearing loss. An estimated 50 million people in the United States and 360 million worldwide have some form of hearing loss.
“Hearing disorders are an unmet medical need,” Holtzman said in an interview. “But more than that, they’re a human and societal need. There’s this huge need and opportunity, and the underlying science has reached a tipping point. We’re beginning to understand the underlying basis of the pathology of hearing loss.”
The only current treatments for hearing loss are hearing aids and cochlear implants, but Holtzman said Decibel hopes to develop a portfolio of therapies that could include pills, biologics, and even drugs based on the gene-silencing technology RNA interference.
Decibel raised $52 million last fall from investors led by Third Rock Ventures, whose cofounder, Kevin Starr, had been serving as its interim CEO.
The company’s scientific cofounders are M. Charles Liberman, director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary; Gabriel Corfas, director of the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan; Ulrich Muller, director of the Dorris Neuroscience Center in San Diego; and Albert Edge, director of the Tillotson Cell Biology Unit at Mass. Eye and Ear.
Others are also working in the field. Frequency Therapeutics Inc., a Cambridge company started last year by Robert Langer, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is trying to improve hearing by regenerating hair cells in the inner ear. A Florida company, Applied Genetic Technologies Corp., is hoping to develop a gene therapy to restore hearing.
Decibel, working in temporary space in the Athenaeum building at 215 First St. in Cambridge, plans to move to larger quarters at the start of 2017. It currently has about 20 employees, but Holtzman said it expects to have 40 to 50 by year-end and 80 to 100 by the end of 2017.
Holtzman said he has several personal motivations for taking the helm at Decibel. His sister Nina was born with a profound hearing loss. He sits on the board of the Berklee College of Music and is concerned about the hearing of musicians and music fans.
And finally, he said, “I’m a baby boomer who’s losing his hearing.”Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.