Developing a non-addictive painkiller to compete with opiates
Mission Bay Capital portfolio company

John Mulcahy is co-founder and vice-president of research at SiteOne Therapeutics, a company developing a non-addictive oral replacement for narcotic pain medications such as oxycodone and Vicodin. SiteOne recently won a $1.4M SBIR grant and raised $1.5M in private funding, including an investment by QB3’s fund Mission Bay Capital.

What’s your background?

I have a PhD in organic chemistry from Stanford. Being an academic was not my goal; I was more interested in building things that will go into the world and people will eventually use. If you start your own company, you have so much control over destiny and process. I watched other people do it as a grad student, an undergrad. Knowing what was possible inspired me at the end of my PhD to look for opportunities.

How did you start SiteOne?

My inspiration was a company called Tetraphase, started in Boston out of Harvard.

Our core technology is a platform for discovering inhibitors of sodium ion channels. We started the company in 2010, and in the early phase it stayed at the Stanford labs of the cofounders.

Our first break in funding was a convertible note so we got a bit of money early. We brought in a CEO, George Miljanich, an industry veteran with a lot of experience developing therapeutics for pain. He was at Neurex till it was acquired by Elan—he coinvented Neurex’s biggest asset, a compound that was developed into Prialt [a chronic pain reliever].

It’s a rollercoaster. Many times along the way we didn’t know where we would be in two months. About eighteen months in, we had to make a substantial pivot. If not for getting an SBIR grant, I don’t know where we would be. That was our third submission.

Now we’re targeting a protein that’s validated by a human genetic condition. People who have a loss-of-function mutation in the gene coding for this ion channel, called “Nav1.7,” are unable to experience pain.

What do you do at SiteOne?

I think about how to making everyone else more efficient. I focus on people having the resources to accomplish their goals. Fixing vacuum pumps, ordering stuff, shopping for equipment, filling in gaps.

What does it take to succeed?

Persistence is key. The first time you try something difficult, the odds are 25%, but when you’re persistent, you learn from mistakes and get things done.

And don’t be afraid of going after big problems, the biggest impact. In life science, anything is hard, you might as well go for something that has impact. We had a platform technology, and the direction that ended up most fruitful was, at the beginning, the most ambitious and hardest.

How has it been working at 953?

Before we moved to 953 we were sharing space in Menlo Park with Bell Biosystems. Now we share a bay and our office is two doors down. They’re the guys I know best: Caleb and Dan Bell, along with John Paderi from Symic. I was classmates with Caleb. I admire him for his persistence and also his level of growth.

The entrepreneurs at QB3@953 are a great network of friends, advisers, people you can reach out to for questions from lab equipment to hiring to getting deals done. It’s inspirational to see other successes. Not just people you’ve heard of; you’ve sat next to them, chatted with them. It keeps the energy very high.

The great thing about the incubator is so much is taken care of for you. Your team can be focused. Doug has been phenomenal. It’s amazing what he’s done; the resources he’s aggregated; how well he takes care of us. He’s very detail oriented and no problem is too small – he even picks up the coffee cups that people leave lying around.

Where are you going with SiteOne?

I think the optimal size for research-focused biotech is six to fifteen employees. Excellent, committed people; big enough that you can make progress. Acquisition is one possibility; also doing a partnership with big pharma. Phase 3 trials are very expensive.