Targeting the hepatitis B virus
Ramen to reverse merger in under two years.
Uri Lopatin co-founded Assembly Pharmaceuticals in 2012, first working from home and then riding his bicycle to our incubator. At one point he literally ate ramen noodles for two months straight. But less than two years later, his startup merged with Ventrus Biosciences to form Assembly Biosciences, listed on Nasdaq with a market capitalization of $85M. Uri is chief medical officer and vice-president for R&D at Assembly, which is headquartered in New York City but conducts R&D in San Francisco, at QB3@953.
What’s your background?
I was an infectious disease specialist, running hepatitis B programs at Roche and then Gilead.
How did Assembly get started?
Adam Zlotnik was working at Indiana University. In 2009 Adam and I met on a train ride from Lyon to Paris, going to an international hepatitis B meeting. This bushy-bearded academic lectured me on amazing things about viral core proteins for several hours. We struck up a friendship that continues today.
He was working on a really interesting approach. As his work matured, it became clear that developing his molecule could lead to something. Should we license to pharma or start a biotech? he asked. Don’t be an idiot, I said, add as much value as possible so you hold a piece. If you license to pharma you may never see anything. If you want to start a biotech in my living room, I’ll help you.
I quit Gilead, and brought in another friend Richard Dimarchi as adviser. Then he brought in Derek Small as CEO.
We went for while on minimum research funding Adam had from NIH. Then we raised $1.5M from seed funds, friends and family, the Indiana fund, J&J. It was so much fun to pitch.
How hard was it in the early stages?
I went for a year with no salary. It was scary and nerve-wracking to go to the bottom dollar. I missed one mortgage payment. I’d made a commitment to myself that I’d go through my savings and at the end either we’d have something or I’d have to get another job. It was extremely stressful. I felt like I was back in university. You notice a change in who hangs out with you when you’re eating ramen noodles and rice because it’s cheap.
What was the biggest factor in your success so far?
That somebody—me—had to quit their job made a big difference with investors. To have been at big pharma and then to go into a venture with both feet, willing to lose everything, means a lot. People who don’t want to do that may not want to be a founder.
What’s it been like working at QB3@953?
It’s been great. We were the first company to move into 953, before everything was completed. It’s been wonderful to see it grow from empty to overfull. It creates camaraderie, allows people working at small companies to feel like they’re part of a bigger thing. Because there’s people to have lunch with. If you’re working in a garage in Emeryville, there’s nobody to decompress with.
It’s good to see other people presenting technology they’re working on. And we’ve done experiments with another company—it didn’t work out, but we explored the idea of using someone else’s technology. It’s tremendously enabling, collaborating with people you know and trust working just down the hall.
How did the merger happen?
It was an interesting opportunity to do a reverse merger. Ventrus had a pile of cash and no assets, and we had a pile of assets and no cash.
One of cofounders, the CEO, knew the CEO of the other company. They had been friends for several years. We met. That was an easy conversation. Everyone on our team enjoyed everyone on theirs. The problem is usually who’s driving the car, who’s got the biggest boy pants on. We didn’t have those problems.
We doubled in scale, and all the pieces fell into right place. By going public, we gave up the least control per share.
What are your goals?
We plan to make Assembly into a multibillion dollar company.
As for me, I love what I do. I’ve been trying to cure hepatitis B for decades now. I love science, love curing disease, get to talk to really smart people doing well by doing good. My personal goal is to see three viruses cured. Then I’ll call it quits.