The past seven years have been a whirlwind for Verge Genomics CEO Alice Zhang. Between launching a biotechnology company to pushing it through early milestones, the San Francisco Bay Area-based founder has felt like she's had little time to relax.
Zhang does not look like many executives in the biotech industry. In a sector where CEOs are usually older, veteran leaders, her youth is at times met with surprise and skepticism, she said.
Zhang launched Verge in 2015 after leaving a doctorate program in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her company has since raised more than $100 million to try to uncover new drug targets for neurodegenerative diseases, in part by analyzing thousands of human tissue samples.
The company expects to begin its first clinical trial in the next month, just four years after identifying a new target for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Verge has attracted pharmaceutical firms and industry leaders alike. In 2021, Eli Lilly partnered with Zhang’s company to hunt for and validate ALS drug targets. And this year, Zhang has drawn in a pair of former Biogen executives. Scientist Al Sandrock, who is now CEO of Voyager Therapeutics, joined Verge's board of directors in February, while John Applegate, who managed Biogen's research and development finances and was most recently an executive at startup Valo Health, came onboard as Verge's chief financial officer in October.
With Verge set to start its first trial, BioPharma Dive spoke with Zhang about her unusual biotech journey and the challenges of building a life sciences startup as a young, first-time founder. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
BIOPHARMA DIVE: How have you found the experience of building Verge?
ALICE ZHANG: When you first start a company as a founder, if you don't have the support of a massive venture capital network behind you, you do a lot of the work upfront. I was hiring everyone; I did over 1,000 interviews personally. I was the chief PowerPoint officer. I was really deeply ingrained in the science because I have a scientific background.
The team has been a big reason why we've been able to go from nothing to our first clinical trial in four years, which has been a longtime dream of mine. I'm really proud to be one of the few AI drug discovery companies that has actually made it to a clinical-stage product.
There are only a couple of us that have taken something all the way and, for us uniquely compared to some of our peers, a truly novel target from the platform that was then developed entirely within the four walls of Verge. It's not an old drug and a new target, and not an old target and a new drug. It's a new target and new drug.
You’re starting clinical trials soon for an ALS drug. Can you tell me about it?
ZHANG: One of the things that I saw was broken in drug development, particularly for these complex diseases like ALS, is that, even today, most drug discovery relies on very reductionist approaches. They tend to oversimplify the enormous complexity of human biology by either relying on animal or cell models to try to predict if drugs work in humans, or by testing sequentially research discoveries within the academic community.
What we did differently with this program is instead of just exploring the solution through trial and error, we actually collected large repositories of human tissues. We've collected — not just for ALS — over 8,000 human samples. These are brains and spinal cords where we've sequenced each sample all the way from DNA to RNA to protein, and paired that with clinical data.
Then we develop machine learning tools to mine this data and create a comprehensive map of human biology. We use it to identify new intervention points to target using drugs that we develop internally in our pipeline.
For ALS, we discovered a new mechanism of action from this approach that was previously unknown in a new target called PIKFYVE. We were able to get that all the way from research to near our first clinical trial in the course of four years, which is a significant improvement upon industry standard.
What are the challenges of being a young biotech CEO?
ZHANG: The biggest journey for me as a founder was turning my inexperience from an insecurity to a superpower.
A lot of the time I have prejudice because it's the first thing I'm going through. In the past, when I first started, a lot of people told me scientists and first-time founders can't be CEOs.
When it becomes an insecurity, it can also become a blind spot. I made a couple of mistakes early on, over-indexing on experience by trying to hire people with gray hairs that could distract from the inexperience.
In doing so, we made some mishires because they didn't see the whole picture holistically. Now I hold that a lot looser. While inexperience has its disadvantages, it also has its advantages particularly in technology-based companies. The need to move quickly becomes more important than pure operational experience.
What has helped you overcome that?
ZHANG: One of my biggest shifts has been not only being OK with the company dying or at least not turning out how I wanted to, but to welcome it as a potentially even better outcome. Nobody knows whether that'll be right for you. The moment that I started to loosen my grip on those things was the moment I stopped micromanaging.
I do believe that you can drive a just and effective company culture better by shifting from a culture that says, “we must achieve these milestones and will be screwed if we don't,” to one that says, “I would love to and I'm passionate about achieving these milestones, but let's be light while we're doing that.” It's an environment that fosters more innovation.
What’s different for biotech founders now, compared to when you started?
ZHANG: We're in a really unprecedented time for biotech, when there's been huge advances in technology. There are more young founders coming straight out of their postdocs and doctorates bucking the traditional VC model of starting companies. There are more successes now of those types of companies.
VCs are starting to realize they need to think differently about where they draw their talent pool from if they want to create an advantage. It's still an issue but people are more open. Back when I first started it was definitely a challenge but, as we've gotten more data, done partnerships and hired, it's been easier.
How have you handled tough questions from investors skeptical of a young founder?
ZHANG: A lot of it is managing your own psychology. You have to realize there are things you can change and there are things you can't. You can never change what's out there. I think you'll go through a lot of pain and suffering if you try to control it. You can only change what's in here.
I initially did a lot of things, like communications coaching because I was told that my answers were too smooth. Like I had all the answers and people didn't like me. I tried to do these things like change the way my face was expressive because I was told I have an inexpressive face. To a certain extent, those can be helpful but after a while, you realize there's only so much you can change about yourself.
The more I found myself trying to contort myself to try to meet what I thought investors liked, the more I was actually diluting the actual novelness and the competitive advantage of the vision. The more secure I became in that, the more I recognized that not everyone is going to like the idea, want to invest in a young founder or think young founders should be CEOs. There's no right or wrong. It's just someone's opinion.
What's your advice for other young founders coming from academia?
ZHANG: You're going to get a lot of skepticism around your inexperience. Recognize that it can also be your superpower. Lean into that and let it not be an insecurity to recognize there are real advantages to being from a technical background and being a founder in technology-driven companies where innovation is crucial.
We found unconventional ways of doing a lot of things. When we found that the classical model of VC funding wasn't something that worked for us, we found investors that were a lot more better aligned with us on the tech side. As much as biotech people like to say tech investors are impatient, my personal experience has been that they're phenomenal investors who are incredibly patient. Tech investors want to see a bigger return and they're willing to wait for it. They often encourage us to do what's best for the platform, rather than having a myopic view of investing everything in a single program.
Always question the status quo and conventional wisdom. Find a founder support network. The number one thing is always to develop a strong sense of persistence and grit in your DNA. Even in the hard times, when you're seeing that press release from some company that seemingly raised $100 million with no effort. Every struggle that I've had has woven a sense of persistence into my DNA. That’s ultimately the quality that enables a founder and company to succeed.