By Lopa Rahman ’16
In 2005, three post-doctoral scientists in the Robert Lefkowitz laboratory planted the seed for a successful business venture without even realizing it.
When Scott DeWire, Jonathan Violin, and Erin Whalen made groundbreaking scientific discoveries about cell receptor signaling with their colleagues in the Lefkowitz laboratory, they had no idea that their research would translate into Trevena Inc., a business now worth over $500 million based in King of Prussia, PA. They submitted a patent to the Duke Technology Transfer office, fully expecting it to be sold to an existing company—the normal procedure for patents passing through the university’s Office of Licensing and Ventures. Brandy Salmon, former Associate Director of the Office of Licensing and Ventures, had something else in mind.
“Brandy encouraged us to think about starting a company rather than just filing a patent,” said DeWire, a co-founder of Trevena who served as the company’s Assistant Director of Biology for five years before taking a project leader position at Boehringer Ingelheim in Ridgefield, CT.
After Salmon steered DeWire, Violin, and Whalen in a different direction, they developed the idea of starting Trevena with Lefkowitz, who would win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012 for his work on G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), a class of cell surface receptors that is targeted by a vast number of prescription drugs, and his fellow Duke researcher Howard Rockman, then Chief of Cardiology. Lefkowitz and Rockman gave DeWire, Violin, and Whalen their full support to start the company and now serve on Trevena’s Scientific Advisory Board. The post-doctoral researchers then began developing a business plan for Trevena. Their goal for the company was to deliver the next generation of GPCR-targeted heart failure and pain medications. The value of the medications they sought to develop lay in their incorporation of the new findings the three scientists made about GPCR signaling.
“We grew a business plan very organically,” said Violin, who after five years in a scientific role is now Director of Investor Relations at Trevena. “Trevena started as talk around the water cooler. We engaged people we knew to talk about what the possibilities were, and they put us in touch with local venture capitalists in the Research Triangle area.”
DeWire, Violin, and Whalen struggled to land investments when they started pitching Trevena to venture capital firms in early 2007. Violin said investors were giving the trio negative responses ranging from, “It’s too early,” to, “You don’t have enough data yet,” to, “The therapy areas you talked about are too difficult.” Venture capitalists were also underwhelmed by the business side of the pitch.
“We were terrible at pitching at first,” DeWire said. “We were giving venture capitalists a science meeting when they wanted to see a business plan. We got a lot of nos.”
DeWire, Violin, and Whalen learned from the mistakes they made in their initial meetings with investors and refined both the scientific and business aspects of their pitch. Instead of showing venture capitalists raw scientific data and images of black and white bands on X-ray film, they dialed out to the big picture, explaining the scientific foundation of the business in decipherable terms as well as the enormous business opportunity stemming from the science. In June 2007, they started to achieve the results they had been hoping for.
“Once we had one blue chip venture capital group bite, a whole bunch did,” DeWire said. “In December 2007 we had a finalized deal to raise $24 million to start the company.” This funding helped the group attract an experienced management team.
Soon after Trevena’s founding, the company was recognized by Business Week as one of the United States’ hottest start-ups in 2008. Since then, Trevena has advanced three products into clinical development: TRV027 for acute heart failure, TRV130, an intravenous product for moderate to acute pain, and TRV734, an oral product for moderate to severe acute and chronic pain. All are novel compounds with differentiated activities. The speed at which Trevena put drugs into human trials is unheard of in big pharma, DeWire said. Trevena had an IPO in January 2014 and shares now trade on the NASDAQ Global Market under “TRVN.” With this successful IPO and later secondary stock offerings, Trevena has completed Phase 2 for TRV130 with very promising data — and has enough cash to complete Phase 3 and advance the rest of the company’s portfolio of novel compounds.
“Trevena is moving so fast,” he said. “It’s what you have to do to survive in small biotech. Trevena has been not only very fast, but also very successful. None of the compounds have been lost out of the portfolio due to attrition. They’ve all successfully hit critical endpoints in clinical trials.”
Erin Whalen, who stayed with Trevena until 2009 after co-founding the company, attributes Trevena’s success to Lefkowitz’s support, the scientific expertise of the co-founders, and their strong work ethic.
“I can’t overstate how empowering it is to have someone like Bob support you in such an endeavor,” Whalen said. “We also had a group of people that knows what good science is, and we had the same ideas in terms of hard work.”
Violin expressed similar sentiments, noting the value of Duke’s culture and people more generally.
“Without the seed of innovation and atmosphere of possibility at Duke, I don’t think Trevena would have started,” Violin said. “It started with the people at Duke.”