Plenty of companies promise to change people’s lives by offering them something that was perhaps previously unavailable. As the founder, president and CEO of Seattle-based PhaseRx, Robert Overell thinks his company can bring that change to children who are seriously ill.
PhaseRx is an 8-year-old biotechnology company that has been developing mRNA therapeutics to treat children with life-threatening inherited liver diseases. Overell is our new Geek of the Week. The promise of his company’s therapy, he says, is to correct those diseases.
“Why do we believe this?” Overell said. “Because there are mice missing exactly the same gene as the humans, and these mice get the same disease as humans do. It was a very exciting day last year when we showed we could correct the disease in the deficient mice. Those moments don’t happen often in our business, but when they do they stay with you for a long time.”
Overell, who trained as a cell and molecular biologist, has a long history in biotech. He led programs at Immunex Corp. in the 1980s, including the development of the first human immunodeficiency virus gene therapy trial in the world. He later found Immunex’s gene therapy spinout, Targeted Genetics Corp., where he led product development and gene delivery programs.
Before founding PhaseRx, he was a general partner with Frazier Healthcare Ventures, where he participated in raising over $600 million of venture capital and invested over $60 million in early-stage biotechnology companies. He has served on numerous corporate boards, including Array Biopharma Inc., XenoPort, Inc. — which he co-founded — and Chimerix, Inc.
Amidst a wave of tech-fueled growth and innovation in Seattle, Overell says he’s “very lucky” to have his co-founders from the University of Washington, Pat Stayton and Allan Hoffman. “Their invention of the polymer technology and their understanding of it has been key to our success,” Overell says.
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the week, Robert Overell:
What do you do, and why do you do it? “I am lucky to have built — and lead — a phenomenal team in Seattle. I love the role — the integration across the verticals, the development and implementation of strategy, team recruitment and melding, board work and board development, and most importantly in my new role as a public CEO, all things PR and IR — I love telling the story and getting it out there. I love the work, and believe we are developing important therapeutics that will change the lives of children with inherited diseases that are in desperate need of help. In our lead programs in the urea cycle disorders, children sustain cumulative and permanent brain damage as a result of a disease that we believe we can correct. I believe this will change their lives, show the power of our technology and generate great returns for our investors.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “It is an RNA world, and for RNA therapeutics it is all about delivery. mRNA therapeutics hold tremendous promise, but delivery is the key. With our world-class team of RNA delivery experts, we have developed the Hybrid mRNA Technology into a robust system for mRNA delivery. Using this system, we have shown complete reversal of urea cycle diseases in preclinical mouse models that are missing exactly the same gene as the children suffering from the disease.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “The team. The suffering caused by the diseases we believe we can correct. The musicians (Eddie Grant to Mark Knopfler, right now into Yeasayer) and authors (C.S. Forester is a fave.)”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “The polymer technology from the Stayton labs at UW. This was our founding technology developed by Pat Stayton and Allan Hoffman, two UW professors who are our co-founders. One big challenge with mRNA delivery is getting it inside the cell — that’s what the polymers do, they provide the intracellular delivery of the mRNA for our Hybrid mRNA Technology.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “We have integrated lab/office facilities on Elliot Ave. These are world-class chemistry and biology facilities that are a very important element of our success. My own office is, well, an office!”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “‘The Discipline of Do Easy’ (William S. Burroughs) — it’s hard!”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kirk.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “That’s under wraps!”
I once waited in line for … “SAMRemix event.”
Your role models: “Richard Branson — Phenomenal leader. Sheer balls. Colin Powell — Great human being and leader. Overcoming adversity and integrity.”
Greatest game in history: “American football.”
Best gadget ever: “iPhone.”
First computer: “mac.”
Current phone: “iPhone.”
Favorite app: “Spotify.”
Favorite cause: “YouthCare.”
Most important technology of 2016: “mRNA therapeutics.”
Most important technology of 2018: “mRNA therapeutics!”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Love what you do, or move on.”
LinkedIn: Robert Overell