Tim Springer never dreamed he’d be spending as much time investing in biotechnology companies as on his academic pursuits.
Springer, after all, is a leading scientist in research on proteins known as “integrins.” For more than four decades at his Harvard University laboratory, he has studied the role the complex molecules play and how they might be targeted to treat disease.
Yet that effort has slowly pulled Springer towards biotech. In 1993, he formed his first startup, LeukoSite, which developed the inflammatory bowel disease drug later known as Entyvio and was bought by Millennium Pharmaceuticals.
“I got about $100 million out of that, so I said, 'I'm never going to do this well again. I'm just going to go back to my lab and never do this again,'” Springer said in an interview.
But Springer has become a prolific startup founder, biotech investor and, most recently, philanthropist. His research spawned publicly traded biotechs Scholar Rock and Morphic Holding. He made early wagers on startups like Editas Medicine and Moderna, the latter of which made him a billionaire.
Still, Springer says he is an academic at heart. That outlook led him in 2017 to co-found a nonprofit organization known as the Institute for Protein Innovation, which provides scientists with access to synthetic antibodies to conduct drug research.
Springer initially donated $40 million to the effort. This past week, however, he used the fortune he made on Moderna to give another $210 million, hoping to ensure the organization can be “established in perpetuity,” rather than worry about further funding.
BioPharma Dive spoke with Springer about his donation, and what decades of creating biotech companies has taught him about drug discovery. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
BIOPHARMA DIVE: Tell us IPI's origin story, and why you've made this gift to the institute.
TIM SPRINGER: I was really enthusiastic about having the chance to donate this money, and my whole family got behind it. We started this from scratch; it's not an offshoot of my laboratory. We recruited some very good scientists initially, and now we're on the second generation.
We're really going to make a difference in the antibody space. It's an expensive technology to set up, so this is the first time it has been in a nonprofit setting. The main goal is just to help the biomedical research enterprise writ large, and that will directly or indirectly also result in the creation of better therapeutics. The nonprofit sector of biomedical research at universities, the National Institutes of Health and other nonprofits is where almost all the ideas come from.
Why did you found IPI as an academic research institution instead of as a company?
SPRINGER: There's no clear reason for that. There is such a thing as a public benefit company, and I thought of that. Besides making money for investors, you have a public good you're after as well. But any company really has to do what is in the interest of making a profit for their investors.
I was really interested in making lots of antibodies and being able to give them out. There are a few companies that you can get antibodies from, but it's very time consuming to go through the process of applying to get them. They would never give me an antibody if there was a relationship to a therapeutic involved. I realized that no company is going to be able to distribute antibodies if it's for-profit. The investors just wouldn't allow it.
We'll be putting a lot of very valuable antibodies out there. Valuable in the sense of the discoveries that can be made biologically and I think, in the long term, valuable for new biomedicines as well.
What are some of the obstacles holding back antibody research?
SPRINGER: There are not good antibodies for a lot of the targets that people want to work on in neurobiology, or in developmental biology. There may be some companies that say, 'We have an antibody to do this.’ But when you speak to people like neurobiologists, they say there are no antibodies that work.
A lot of the antibody companies work with a ‘caveat emptor’ premise. Just make the antibodies, put them in a catalog, and somebody will buy them and figure out whether they work or not. We aim to do that first before we send them out.
After focusing on research for so long, you’ve since turned to startup creation and investing. How did you make that transition?
SPRINGER: I've been pretty fortunate that there's been multiple phases in my career after I did LeukoSite. It was just such a success. It was sold at the time to Millennium for $600 million. But if you look more carefully — it was stock — our portion of Millennium was worth $3 billion.
But then a friend came along and said, 'I've started a company, would you be willing to invest in it?' And then I made friends with Amir Nashat [of Polaris Partners] because we were on the board of directors together, and Amir became my biotech muse. He enchanted me with the idea of starting more companies.
Now, I'm maxed out. I'm on six boards besides IPI, and it's just a lot of responsibility. My lab is still very important; I've got three NIH grants and about 16 people. I'm a scientist at heart, more than I am a businessman.
Aside from antibodies, what emerging hot spots of research are you enthusiastic about?
SPRINGER: I'm very interested in cell and gene therapy — gene therapy has hit lots of obstacles, and CRISPR has gone much more slowly than people anticipated. It's also very expensive, millions of dollars for one gene therapy, but I think it will make a difference eventually.
When anybody asks me about the future of biotech, I'm always optimistic. Machine learning and artificial intelligence — there's a lot of hype out there, people who claim to be applying it to one thing or another in biology and really aren't. But there are very intelligent ways to use machine learning to accelerate the production of medicines.