In 2010, Brian Frezza and D.J. Kleinbaum were four hours from leaving Silicon Valley for good. Since childhood, the two best friends had been incubating a shared dream of using computer science to cure diseases. They had first pitched investors on their vision six years earlier, as seniors studying computational biology at Carnegie Mellon University, but the door hit them on their way out of every meeting.
“No one will fund you or let you run a biotech company without three letters after your name,” Kleinbaum says.
So, after graduation, the pair left Pittsburgh to acquire those formal creds. Kleinbaum enrolled in a PhD program at Stanford while Frezza went to Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. In June 2010, days before Frezza was supposed to defend his thesis, he told his adviser he had bigger ambitions than academia.
“He was livid,” Frezza recalls. “He had kind of assumed I was going to be his protégé.”
For years the duo had been scrawling code for a robotic biochemistry lab that would run experiments radically faster than had ever before been possible. They were about to file their first patent applications for “bioorganic nanotechnology,” the theoretical basis of a novel class of drugs that would, they believed, yield a cure for AIDS and other persistent viral infections. (If that sounds vague, it’s supposed to; the healthily paranoid Frezza says they’re still a year away from being ready to talk about it.)
Incensed by his adviser, Frezza put off his thesis, packed up his car, drove eight hours north to Palo Alto, and camped out on Kleinbaum’s couch so they could find the funding that would finally make their company a reality.
Computational biologists Brian Frezza (left) and D.J. Kleinbaum are developing nanotechnology that could cure AIDS.
It was a distinctly lousy time to be raising cash for a startup like theirs. Two years earlier, venture capital investment in biotech had plunged by more than one-third, and it hadn’t stirred since. Unlike software plays, biotech startups are particularly high risk and capital intensive, with nebulous, sprawling timelines. Now, six years after that initial round of rejection, the more credentialed pair were disappointed to find themselves receiving the same chilly reception. Nobody wanted to make a big bet on two twentysomethings with no track record doing wet-lab work. “I’ve lost track of how many VC firms I’ve been asked to leave, either politely or impolitely,” says Kleinbaum.
They had resigned themselves to returning to Pittsburgh, where they had wrangled some angel funding and lab space. But before leaving town, they played their last card. PayPal co-founder Max Levchin was the former boss of Frezza’s older brother, who died in 2001 of complications from type 1 diabetes. Levchin spoke at the funeral and over the years had become an informal mentor to Frezza. After Frezza called him with his and Kleinbaum’s plans, Levchin offered them seed money, and something even more valuable–an invitation to connect with his PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, one of the few VCs, according to Levchin, prepared to “make extreme bets on stuff that sounds right out of a science-fiction novel.”
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