At age 50, Jennie Mather left biotech giant Genentech, where she was the first female staff scientist, to start her own shop--and do things differently. Genentech and other biotech companies prefer to deconstruct the entire genome of a disease cell, made up of between 500 and 1,000 genes, before producing drugs to fight it. Mather wanted to look at just 1% or 2% of the proteins--the surface of the cell--as potential targets for the antibodies she develops.
"The beauty of antibodies," explains Stephen Worsley, Raven's vice president of business development, "is that they're so much safer than other drugs." Antibodies are more targeted, going after specific disease mechanisms, and tend to have fewer side effects. "We want to make smart bombs," Worsley says.
Raven isn't the only company working with antibodies (one forecast puts the worldwide market in 2010 at $26 billion, which is bound to draw competition). But Raven is turbocharging the way they are discovered and developed: Since 1999, Mather has raised $115 million in venture capital, and now has a colorectal-and-pancreatic-cancer drug in clinical trials.
Looking back on the response to her ideas, Mather muses that "in six years, we've gone from 'that's impossible' to 'that's unbelievable' to 'why isn't everyone doing it that way?' "