Rosana Kapeller, M.D., Ph.D.
Title: Entrepreneur in residence
Rosana Kapeller always wanted to be a scientist.
“I was that nerdy kid that went around collecting bugs, figuring out how they worked and the biology behind them; I tried to dissect a frog in my mother’s kitchen—all of that,” she said with a laugh.
An M.D./Ph.D. from Brazil, Kapeller landed as a bench scientist at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, where she eventually became director of the target advancement team. That’s where she caught the entrepreneurial bug: “I wanted to be part of the company creation side of the story.”
So, after nine years at Millennium, Kapeller started building companies.
First came Aileron Therapeutics, with technology out of Harvard targeting protein-protein interactions. Then she joined Third Rock Ventures as a consultant—“They didn’t call people entrepreneurs in residence at the time. They called us consultants,” she said—where she worked on a diabetes-focused diagnostics company that ultimately never came to be.
“It was great science, but we couldn’t come up with a business model that made real sense,” she said.
But Kapeller is probably best known as the founding chief scientific officer of Nimbus Therapeutics, the Cambridge startup that put virtual drug discovery on the map. When she joined the team in 2010, Nimbus was two people in an office—Kapeller and Jonathan Montagu, then the VP of business development—and a blank sheet of paper.
“Let’s make this work,” they said.
Nimbus was the brainchild of Bruce Booth, a partner at Atlas Venture, and Ramy Farid, the CEO of the software company Schrödinger. The duo wanted to build a company that used computational chemistry to speed up drug discovery. They figured it would be faster, cheaper and better to use virtual experiments and computer models and asked Kapeller if she was in.
“To be completely honest with you, I was highly skeptical,” Kapeller said. Having spent years at Millennium working with the computational chemistry team, she knew that “most of the time, it didn’t work.” But her fascination with the technology won her over, and she jumped on board.
Booth later said she was “one of the smartest hires I’ve ever made.”
As they built the company from the ground up, Kapeller and Montagu faced unique problems. First off, they didn’t own the technology—Schrödinger owned that—which made it a risky proposition from the get-go. Second, they decided that Nimbus would not synthesize its own compounds; instead, they outsourced that wet-lab work to contract research organizations.
Nimbus was born during the Great Recession, so fundraising wasn’t a picnic, either. “Every time we went to investors saying we needed money, they would say, ‘Well, I could go and work with Schrödinger—why do I need Nimbus?” Kapeller said.
Over and over again, she stressed that technology wasn't enough and that the company's success would depend on its team of drug hunters and its "secret sauce."
Nimbus brought its first program, an acetyl-CoA carboxylase inhibitor for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), into the clinic in 2015. Gilead snapped it up for $400 million the following year, promising $800 million in milestones. Since then, Nimbus has collected another $200 million from Gilead and inked deals with Genentech and Celgene.
In addition to challenges specific to Nimbus, Kapeller has faced personal obstacles in her career. Defying the stereotype of scientists as being quiet introverts, she had a hard time being taken seriously as a loud, funny scientist who loves to socialize.
“A lot of the time, people don’t know what to make of me and that can be a problem, because it’s an issue of credibility. I had to prove myself over and over again,” she said.
Another challenge didn’t become clear until she saw an article about gender disparity in the workplace accompanied by a picture of men at the starting line of a race, while a woman stands 10 feet behind them.
“When I saw that picture, I realized that was exactly how I felt my whole career, that I was always starting behind the guys and I always had to prove myself to be at the same level as the guys,” she said. She herself surmounted that hurdle but acknowledged that it remains for others, not just for women, but for all kinds of minorities.
“Diversity is very important; we have to have all kinds of diversity. And we have to close that initial gap. Everyone should be starting from the same place. I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said.
However, she has seen change over the years, which she credits to women ascending to the highest ranks in the industry and hiring other women.
“The way to empower diversity is to get diverse people in power,” she said. “Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I see a bright future. Things are definitely changing; it’s very different from where we were 20 to 30 years ago.”
She encourages young scientists, especially women, to go out and make connections. Networking is about the long game, she said.
“Someone you meet in a particular place now can be the person who makes a difference in your life 10, maybe 20 years from now. … Don't think about the things that can happen to you today, think about the things that will happen to you tomorrow,” she said.
It's a piece of advice that helped her find her latest job. In 2018, itching to get back to the cutting edge of science, she called GV's Krishna Yeshwant, M.D., MBA, with whom she had crossed paths over the years. She was thinking about leaving Nimbus, and the pair talked through what she could do next.
“Nimbus had done extremely well, but it was now a clinical-stage company. I had a great company, a great team, great everything, so I thought this was a great time for me to go and do something different,” she said.
She was interested in machine learning and how it could be applied to other parts of life sciences, not just drug discovery but also drug development and clinical trial development.
"I couldn't think of another place in the world to do that," she said.
After taking a year off, she joined GV as an entrepreneur in residence, where she is working on her next big thing.