Space is at a premium for Cambridge startup Intellia
CAMBRIDGE — Nessan Bermingham has the kind of problem most executives wouldn’t mind tackling: His fledgling biotech company is expanding so fast that it’s practically outgrown a new headquarters before the place is even finished.
On a recent walk-through of the 65,000-square-foot space on Erie Street, the Intellia Therapeutics Inc. chief executive — his black attire offset by a white hard hat — asked his deputies to figure out how to shoehorn more scientists and equipment into a drug-screening lab under construction. Every square foot counts.
“We’re talking about scaling up,” said Bermingham, 43, speaking with a lilt imported from his native County Cork in Ireland.
Intellia is one of a trio of startups working locally in the biotech niche known as CRISPR-Cas9. The gene-editing technology was discovered just four years ago, but already it’s sparked a frenzied competition to develop the first of potentially thousands of treatments for genetic disorders.
Senior operations director Chris Maciejczak led his colleagues on a tour as workers installed ceilings and shelves ahead of a scheduled Dec. 1 move-in date. “This room was designed 15 months ago and we’ve already maxed it out,” he said, citing a surge in hiring and an acceleration of the company’s drug discovery experiments. “We’re going to have to move a few benches around and get some additional [DNA] sequencers in here.”
Speed is the new watchword in the global biotech hub of Cambridge. Drug development historically has been a slow process – it often takes more than a decade to bring a medicine from lab to marketplace. But that’s changing, thanks to new machines that can screen drug targets faster and an entrepreneurial environment that’s more akin to high-tech than Big Pharma.
Intellia had two employees, Bermingham and an assistant, when Atlas Venture launched it in the firm’s Cambridge “seed space” in the winter of 2013. Since then, it has grown to nearly 100 workers across three sites, and its staff could double by the end of next year.
“I was employee number 15,” said Jessica Seitzer, the company’s group leader for screening. “Everything after that was a blur.”
The company has struck high-profile collaboration deals with Swiss drug giant Novartis AG and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y. It raised $108 million in an initial public offering in May. Its scientists are working feverishly on gene-editing treatments for everything from the hepatitis B virus to a rare form of blindness. If all goes well, it could move its earliest drug candidates into clinical trials within 18 to 24 months.
“It’s a very, very fast start,” said Atlas partner Jean-François Formela, who has worked with Bermingham for 15 years and sits on Intellia’s board. “Nessan is high drive, high energy, an entrepreneur with an acute understanding of what it takes to build a company. And that’s one of the factors behind how this company has come together so fast.”
Intellia’s leading rivals, Editas Medicine and Crispr Therapeutics Inc., completed their own IPOs this year — Crispr’s just last week — underscoring the heightened interest of investors. The companies are in a race to develop the first treatment based on gene editing. Toward the end of the tour of Intellia’s new workspace, Bermingham posed a question that emphasized the urgency: “How long it is going to take to get this [site] up and running?”
About an hour later, more than 40 scientists and researchers gathered for a “scientific chat” around a cramped bank of desks in the overcrowded office Intellia now operates out of 130 Brookline St., just a few blocks away from the new headquarters.
The goal of the session was to keep up with the steady stream of scientific literature in the young field of gene editing, in which researchers use a tool that serves as a kind of molecular scissors to cut defective mutations out of genetic material and replace them with healthy cells. Their aim is to come up with what Formela calls a “permanent rewriting of genetic sequence.” CRISPR-Cas9, the tool being deployed by Intellia and its competitors, is thought to be the fastest and most accurate way to do this.
“I want to provide everyone with a overview on gene repair,” said senior scientist Jonathan Preall, who led the chat as he ran through slides describing new developments in the field. “It helps us to understand the type of repair strategies that are available to us.”
Intellia employees, from senior executives to junior research technicians, listened intently.
Wearing a black T-shirt, Bermingham was the most casually dressed person in the room. The molecular scientist and former venture capitalist sat curled up in the window sill, his feet propped on a radiator, typing away on a laptop. He alternately conducted online searches for the scientific papers Preall referenced and answered a flood of e-mails about Intellia.
Waiting until others had asked their questions, he piped in with one of his own — what’s the potential for viruses to integrate into host genomes during gene therapy tests?It sounded like the kind of question only a molecular scientist would ask, even one whose days at the lab bench might be in past.
“They won’t let me anywhere near the lab here,” Bermingham joked.