Biochip and stem-cell biotech Minerva fires, sues its CEO

minerva-bio-logo-250px.jpgA potentially interesting legal drama is unfolding at Minerva Biotechnologies, a Waltham, Mass., startup developing biochips and exploring the biology of cancer stem cells. In a terse release, the company said it has terminated CEO Jim Czirr and launched a search for his successor. Minerva also said it has filed suit against Czirr in Massachusetts Superior Court.

Details are still rather sketchy at this point. I spoke briefly with Minerva founder Cynthia Bamdad, who declined to say much about Czirr until she’d consulted her lawyers. Bamdad said Czirr was named CEO in October 2005, but “basically stopped performing any work function back in July” of 2007. “That was the reason for the recent board action.”

So far, I’ve been unable to track down Czirr for comment.

Czirr, described in this Boston Business Journal article as a former center for the University of Michigan football team, is also apparently at odds with his previous company, cancer-drug developer Pro Pharmaceuticals. Czirr stepped down as board member and executive at Pro Pharma in 2003, but still holds roughly 15 percent of the company’s outstanding shares. Czirr has been publicly critical of Pro Pharma’s financial management.

Bamdad is a fascinating personality in her own right. As this 2004 Technology Review piece explains, Bamdad began her biotech career at age 36 as an artist and single mother of five with no higher degrees or scientific background. Newly divorced, she sold her Ferrari, earned an undergraduate physics degree in three years and a Harvard biophysics doctorate in five, produced a marketable biosensor from her academic work, took it to a company that was shortly acquired by Motorola, and went on to found Minerva in 1999.

Her company started life as a developer of nanoparticle-based biochips, but more recently has pushed into stem-cell science. Bamdad said Minerva scientists, in conjunction with academic researchers at UC Santa Barbara, are beginning to develop drug candidates that would attack cancer stem cells, which are primordial cells that may initiate and sustain tumors. The company has also recently taken strides toward understanding how embryonic stem cells grow and “differentiate” into the 200 or so cell types in the body. Minerva has 16 employees and has raised between $12 million and $13 million over its lifetime, all from angel investors, Bamdad told me.

I’ll likely follow up with another post when we know more about what’s actually going on with this controversy.