If running a biotech startup takes an appetite for risk and an ability to get up after a bad fall, then Lyndra Therapeutics of Watertown has just picked a new CEO with both of those attributes.
Patricia Hurter, who retired six weeks ago as a high-ranking executive at Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, has competed in English-style equestrian show jumping for 25 years. In 2013, she was warming up on a chestnut-colored horse in upstate New York when he stopped short before a hurdle and threw her over his head.
The 5-foot-3-inch pharmaceutical executive landed on her back on the wooden fence and broke three vertebrae and a rib, not to mention the fence. But Hurter, a native of South Africa with a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says she returned to work at Vertex about two weeks later and was back on a horse two weeks after that.
“Growing up in South Africa, you’re sort of more risk-tolerant than maybe in some other countries because you knew the chances of there being a war and revolution were very high, and the chances of having to leave the country were very high,” said Hurter, 55. “A lot of people, if they broke a few vertebrae, they probably wouldn’t get back into riding again. I got back as fast as I could.”
Hurter will become CEO of Lyndra on Sept. 3, the company announced Monday. She will replace Amy Schulman, a managing partner at the Boston venture capital firm Polaris Partners and cofounder of Lyndra. Schulman will become executive chairwoman of Lyndra’s board.
Created in 2015 after being spun out of the MIT lab of Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and entrepreneur, Lyndra is taking on an unusual challenge: developing long-acting medicines that can be taken by mouth once a week instead of once or multiple times a day, for conditions from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s to HIV. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for patients to stick to their treatment regimens.
The privately held company has designed a capsule that contains a star-shaped structure. The star’s six arms unfold inside the stomach and steadily release ingredients over an extended period; the star stays in the stomach until the arms break off and leave the body like undigested food.
Lyndra’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Andrew Bellinger, told the Globe in January that the company planned to apply this year to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to begin testing a long-acting schizophrenia capsule in 2020. Patients with schizophrenia, a severe mental disease, often don’t take their medication regularly because of the side effects and because the illness affects their judgment.
Generally speaking, drug-making ventures face long odds against ever getting to market. Even if experimental drugs make it to clinical trials, some 86 percent fail to win FDA approval, according to a study last year by researchers from MIT.
Schulman said Hurter has a “phenomenal track record of bringing medications forward” from the early stage of development to government approval.
“Dr. Hurter, or Trish, as I call her, is going to be an extraordinary leader for the next phase of Lyndra’s growth,” she said.
Hurter spent 15 years at Vertex, one of the biggest drug companies in the state, and eventually rose to the position of senior vice president of pharmaceutical and preclinical sciences. She helped shepherd three cystic fibrosis drugs to approval — Kalydeco, Orkambi and Symdeko — as well as Incivek, a hepatitis C treatment that was quickly supplanted by Sovaldi, the drug made by Gilead Sciences.
She informed Vertex’s leaders about a year ago that she planned to retire this spring. Hurter, who gets up most mornings at 4:45 to ride horses she owns at her house in Harvard, toyed with starting a company to make more affordable drugs to treat common conditions in horses, including ulcers.
But shortly before Christmas, Schulman invited her to Lyndra and broached the possibility of her taking over as CEO. It’s not uncommon in biotech for partners of venture capital firms to temporarily run a new start-up and then hand off the job to a seasoned pharmaceutical executive.
“I wasn’t planning to take a job,” Hurter said. “But I met Amy, and she told me about Lyndra, and it just seemed like an incredibly unique fit with my background.”
Hurter retired from Vertex in April and has begun working part-time at Lyndra. The company has about 50 full-time employees, roughly one-seventh the number of workers she oversaw at Vertex.
The startup has collected about $85 million in venture capital in two fund-raising rounds. Its investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Lyndra has also obtained nearly $4.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to devise a long-acting treatment for malaria and for opioid-use disorder.
Lyndra signed a deal with the Irish drug giant Allergan in 2017 that could be worth $105 million to jointly develop a once-a-week formulation of the latter’s medicines for Alzheimer’s disease.
Lyndra is initially trying to transform approved drugs into long-lasting medicines, but Hurter said she hopes it could eventually use compounds that are still in development.
Schulman, the first female partner at Polaris, said she and Hurter share a commitment to a diverse workforce. At Vertex, Hurter started a program called Inspiring Women in Leadership & Learning, or IWILL, to recruit and nurture more female employees. Hurter said she was pleased that nine of the 15 members of Lyndra’s leadership team are women.
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