INTERVIEW WITH ALICE ZHANG – CEO AND CO-FOUNDER OF VERGE GENOMICS
Alice Zhang is challenging the status quo within the drug development industry as the CEO and co-founder of Verge Genomics. At just over 30 years old, she is leading a San Francisco based team of nerdy PhDs and experienced drug developers, as they seek to reinvigorate the field of neurodegenerative diseases.
She’s also been featured in Forbes many, many times because her story is interesting to people—she’s young, smart, creative and unstoppable. As we’re celebrating Asian American heritage in science this month, we’re honored to tell you more about Alice Zhang.
Zhang began her journey when she earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in Molecular Biology with high honors. She then spent several years at UCLA as a MD/PhD candidate, during which she co-authored several publications and pushed forward the field of neuroscience. After which, she founded Verge to use genomics to improve the way in which cancer therapies are developed.
Zhang sees Verge as the perfect mix of tech company and drug developer. In her eyes, the neuroscience industry needs both elements to succeed. This is evident through Verge’s use of genomics. The company works extensively with universities and governments to acquire brain samples from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s patients. With this approach, they have been able to develop one of the most expansive databases in the industry, enabling the use of machine learning to derive new levels of insights never previously seen before. From there, drugs can more effectively be developed. As the result of their groundbreaking work, their first computationally predicted drug to treat ALS will be entering into clinical trials next year!
The company has secured $54 million venture funding to date to support its operations, which is certainly a difficult process only made more complicated due to biases and misconceptions held within the industry. Thankfully, Zhang has seen success in her fundraising efforts thanks to her creative thinking and professional background. Threshold Ventures (FKA DFJ), who has invested in companies like Tesla, Twitter, and SpaceX, led Verge’s Series A. Not only has Zhang been able to secure financial backing from tech investors, but also from several biotech investors like Wuxi, the ALS Investment Fund and Agent Capital.
She has been able to appeal to a variety of investor types (traditional VCs, corporate/strategic VCs, disease foundations, and lots and lots of angels!) by crafting the right positioning as a tech company and a drug developer. Zhang has fought opposition to secure financing through the use of data that is compelling and supports her claims from both a technology and life science perspective.
We set down with Alice for a quick zoom coffee chat recently:
“We’re interested in how biotech founders find their path to success. How did your idea for the company evolve over time? Is Verge different today than when you first launched it?”
Before I started Verge Genomics in 2015, I was working on my MD/PhD at UCLA, where we were using large-scale data, machine learning, and genomics to discover new drugs in neuroscience. Using this approach, we discovered a drug from this data that helped mice recover from nerve injury four times faster than the gold standard in the literature. I couldn’t believe what was now possible in the field of drug discovery, and I wanted to be at the forefront.
Instead of just publishing my work in academia, I wanted to turn it into something that could transform people’s lives: treatments for neurodegeneration. Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the only top diseases with growing death rates in the last decade. As we grow older, diseases of aging will affect us all, yet we have no way of preventing, slowing, or curing them. Many drugs that initially looked promising in animal models didn’t pan out when put in humans. Eventually, I realized that we needed to start with humans in order to see new drugs succeed—which is what we do at Verge.
Rapid advances in human genomics have created an opportunity to use human data in drug discovery—yet many pharma companies are shuttering their neuroscience divisions. This has created a “moneyball” moment for the field: when a technological renaissance coincides with incumbents leaving a large, untapped market, there’s a window of opportunity for small companies to transform the landscape.
Over the last few years, we have built a “full-stack” AI drug company at Verge, generating our own proprietary patient data, applying internally developed, machine-learning algorithms, and developing our own drugs from those insights in our in-house labs and animal facilities. We are a team of drug developers, neuroscientists, and computer scientists with the shared mission of using this engine to make neurodegeneration a disease of the past. Next year, we will be putting our first drug into humans: a promising treatment for ALS. It will be the first computationally predicted drug to ever enter clinical trials as a treatment for ALS.
“Where did your first dollar come from, and how did you approach seed financing?”
Our first dollar came from Y Combinator, which is an incubator that provided us a rich knowledge base of content on how to start a company, a large supportive peer network, and access to a big group of early-stage investors with a “pay it forward” attitude. We approached seed financing by casting our net wide and looking for investors that shared our belief that biotech is in a new era, with a new wave of high-growth biotechs emerging from next-generation technology. We found investors that recognized that this change in biotech startup phenotype also brought a new phenotype of biotech founders, and the importance of innovation, creativity, fresh perspectives and risk-taking in a world where technology is moving quickly.
“In your communications and fundraising, how did you balance the need for a deep focus on science vs. the clarity and succinctness needed for investors?”
I made sure to build empathy for my audience. I spent a lot of time with investors really understanding what they care about. I put that information front and center. It’s important to be flexible in how you communicate depending on who you are talking to. My scientific background has been helpful in quickly switching between deep scientific conversations and business discussions.
“Any advice for other founders in biotech embarking on the fundraising journey?”
Don’t be afraid to be persistent. You’re going to hear “no” a lot, but if you are relentless, you will find people who are willing to take a risk on the next generation of brilliant, creative, resilient, and energetic founders with fresh ideas and open minds. Those that overcome the odds build resilience and are all the more well-suited to face the challenges of running a company and succeed. Find a support system early on: both of peers going through the same experience and CEOs who are a few years ahead of you. Being a founder can be an incredibly lonely experience and having a support system can help you avoid the unknown unknowns that you’ll face down the road.
“How did you go about building your network and what kind of key individuals (fellow founders, industry veterans, investors, etc.) were critical to your success?”
Find your support system early on. Being a founder can feel lonely. Seek out people who are going through the same thing you are, at the same stage. Then find people who are a few years ahead of you. People who have gone through hardships often have the best advice. I met a group of female founders at a similar stage who have effectively been like my co-founders. I’ve also made sure to build out a network of other CEOs who have already been down the path that I’m on.
“Since Radyus Research is a collaborative research organization, we had to ask ...What role might external organizations (partners, collaborators or CROs) play in the progression of a start-up?”
External organizations are critical for any drug development startup. In a field known for its complexity, external organizations allow you to “rent expertise” in the early stages, when you need a critical piece of data to get to the next milestone. CROs have been instrumental in helping us manage (cash) burn, while accelerating timelines.
External links to Alice Zhang's work: