Despite the Hawaiian print shirt, Steven Holtzman said retirement has not suited him well — which is why the biotech vet will announce Wednesday that he is taking the helm of Cambridge, Mass., hearing loss startup Decibel Therapeutics.
Decibel’s new CEO is a recent Biogen alum, who also founded Infinity Pharmaceuticals and led the business development team at Millennium Pharmaceuticals.
Armed with a boatload of cash — Decibel raised $52 million in October from Third Rock and GlaxoSmithKline’s venture arm — Holtzman plans to lead the company’s efforts to delve into the molecular pathophysiology of hearing loss and develop new drugs.
STAT chatted with Holztman about what drew him to Decibel — and about the company’s plans.
So, why Decibel?
Up until now, we have hearing aids and cochlear implants — but there are no therapeutics to address hearing loss. What really drew me: This is a completely white space. … [It’s] a huge medical need, but also a societal need.
From the youngest people to the oldest, spoken words and music are our means of self-expression and communication. These are impeded by hearing loss. It can cause isolation and depression.
I also have personal experiences with hearing loss: My sister was born with a fairly profound hearing loss condition. And as someone in his early 60s, I have a loss of high-frequency sounds, and have trouble hearing some speech and noise.
What are some indications Decibel is chasing?
Initially, we’re looking at ototoxicity as a targeted market. There are about 200 commonly taken drugs that cause hearing impairment. For example, we’re looking at certain platinum chemotherapies for pediatric cancers that can cause total hearing loss in children.
Then there’s a larger population: noise-induced hearing loss, like what’s experienced by soldiers, or the loud noise from music you hear in stadiums. Tinnitus. Age-related hearing.
We’re putting together a platform that will allow us to address all of these things over time. But ototoxicity is high on our list. We’re indifferent to therapeutic modality — it could be a biologic, a small molecule or nucleic acid based — but what we’re starting with is trying to understand the underlying biology to learn targets for intervention.
So what’s your immediate plan as CEO?
We’re looking to hire about 100 people by 2017. We’re beginning discussions with other pharma companies, to see if opportunities for collaboration are available. We received $52 million, and with it we’re creating a kickass senior management team. That’s critical.