Discovering a world beyond contract research

Certerra cofounder Pavel Osten: Expanded vision means more staff, space and capacity.

By GREGORY ZELLER // Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory spinoff Certerra Inc. is finally getting ready to spin off.

Founded in 2011 by CSHL associate professor Pavel Osten and venture capitalist Steve Winick, Certerra screens drugs to test their effectiveness on a broad spectrum of brain-based disorders.

Until now, the company has focused on mouse brain scans for pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients, helping them improve predictability before their experimental compounds move on to human clinical trials.

But with a few years of successful testing under its belt and a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health research grant in the bank, Certerra is now looking to spread its wings, with new digs, added staff and a new business plan that will take it well beyond its original scope as a contract research organization.

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Steve Winick

The pivot stems from Certerra’s new imaging technology, which will boost the firm’s output by 20X.

“In addition to working with our commercial customers, this faster imaging will allow us to study libraries of compounds that have been developed and optimized for getting into the brain,” Osten said. “Not every chemical can get into the brain, but we can screen libraries of chemical compounds and see if we can identify compounds that have a pattern of brain activation.”

“Then we can go back to the pharmas with novel compounds we think will have a therapeutic effect, and ask them if they’re interested in developing those compounds with us.”

To facilitate the expanded workload, Certerra is planning to add at least 10 employees, including scientists and technicians, bringing the total staff to 14.

Winick, who heads the Certerra board, said the equipment upgrades will allow the company’s scientists to “work more quickly and more cheaply, so they can do larger projects and more projects at the same time.”

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CSO Lolahon Kadiri

“This is all about expanding capacity,” Winick noted. “They can’t start doing drug discoveries until they expand their capacity to do the work. If all that works, then they can transition into doing their own discovery work, beyond the CRO model.”

The ceiling is definitely higher beyond the limits of contract research. In 2013, the pharmaceutical industry publication Drug Discovery World predicted more than $80 billion in annual revenues for firms developing new therapies for central nervous system disorders, including such widespread diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and common conditions including depression and anxiety.

A novel Alzheimer’s disease medication, the publication noted, “bears every promise of outshining the likes of Lipitor in blockbuster status.”

That’s not to say every neurology-focused biotech attempting drug discoveries will strike it rich. Drug Discovery World notes the chances of that new Alzheimer’s treatment reaching the market are nearly 50 percent lower than those of a comparable cardiovascular medicine, with development costs that can range as much as 30 percent higher.

That has naturally frightened many drug-discovery firms out the space, and put a premium on the work that is Certerra’s bread and butter. The transition to drug discovery therefore marks a bold forward leap for the firm, which in addition to that 2013 NIH research grant has been funded by Winick’s VC firm, Topspin Partners.

Also signifying the company’s progress is its pending move from Cold Spring Harbor, where Osten and Chief Science Officer Lolahon Kadiri are full-time employees, to the Broad Hollow Bioscience Park in Farmingdale. No official date for the move has been set, but Osten said it would likely happen around October, after the park’s vivarium – which houses the mice needed for Certerra’s brain experiments – gets up to speed.

The company already has its bioscience park space picked out, and while Certerra officials have not yet signed a lease, they’re confident they’ll be relocating within the next three months.

It’s a necessary move for a company ready to take on the expanded risks of drug discovery and a shot at a blockbuster of its own.

“With the extra technology capacity,” Osten said, “it makes sense for us to do both.”