Organovo’s Keith Murphy Back as Executive Chairman

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Founder and former CEO of Organovo, Keith Murphy, is back as the company’s newly appointed Executive Chairman of the Board. The news comes three years after Murphy left the pioneering biotechnology business to start another venture, a seven-person biotech 3D tissue technology and multi-omics startup called Viscient Biosciences. During this time, Organovo struggled to find the resources needed to advance its highly-anticipated 3D printed developments of living human liver tissue for organ transplant.

Since 2007, San-Diego based Organovo had been one of the big driving forces behind bioprinting technology. However, company officials halted all research and development lead programs in August 2019 and laid off 69 percent of its overall workforce – approximately 40 positions – to extend its cash runway as it explored available “strategic alternatives to generate value from its technology platform and intellectual property.” As a result, the company recorded a restructuring charge of close to $1.3 million, and soon thereafter, in November, it sold Samsara Sciences, its human primary liver and kidney cell isolation business, to Virginia-based LifeNet Health for $1.5 million.

Even though the company had anticipated in 2018 that Organovo would have two liver therapeutic tissue programs on track for an Investigational New Drug (IND) targeted for 2020 under the guidance of its Chief Medical Officer, Steven G. Hughes, things failed to go as planned. Clearly, as we move through the fiscal year 2020, there has been no news whatsoever of any advances in Organovo products.

NovoGen Bioprinter Platform. (Image courtesy of Organovo)

Financially, the company took a turn for the worse, in mid-2019, Nasdaq notified Organovo that it no longer met the requirements to maintain a minimum closing bid price of $1 per share, as part of Nasdaq ruling. This meant its stock would have to trade at $1 or higher for a minimum of 10 consecutive days within a six month period to avoid being delisted from the Nasdaq Global Market stock exchange. Overall, the company stock price has been depressed for the past five years, going from USD 5.04 on June 6, 2015, to USD 0.27 on March 25, 2020.

Ever since Organovo’s activities and future prospects took a downturn, Murphy took drastic measures in order to speak directly to stakeholders, trying to avoid a possible reverse merger with Tarveda Therapeutics – a privately held cancer drug developer – in what he described during an interview with 3DPrint.com as a “weak financial position with unexciting technology and unattractive prospects.” Also recognizing that Organovo “is today in its own precarious position due to recent mismanagement,” he concluded that he firmly believes that “the transaction being irrationally championed by the Board runs completely counter to stockholders’ best interests.”

Murphy, who in the last few years has been heavily engaged with Viscient, a company that uses Organovo’s 3D bioprinting technology towards the discovery and development work in serious forms of fatty liver disease called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), had also outlined an offer to combine his new venture with Organovo. But the offer bounced as executives at the time chose to go with Tarveda. Eventually, the planned merger between Organovo and Tarveda fell through and in April 2020 the company had to formally announce that it had terminated the merger agreement.

Bioprinted liver by Viscient Biosciences. (Image courtesy of Viscient Biosciences)

Almost a year after news first came out of a potential merger between Organovo and Tarveda, in what seemed like the last attempt to save the sinking business, Murphy found his way back. This time probably to keep the company afloat for good as he attempts to advance product development and services of bioprinted human tissues that emulate human biology and disease, enhancing the original pioneering technology that helped him found the company back in 2007.

Following the virtual 2020 annual meeting on September 15, 2020, and according to Organovo’s latest cooperation agreement, new appointments to the Board of Directors also include, Adam Stern, the current CEO of SternAegis Ventures; Alison Milhous, an independent consultant primarily for life sciences and technology companies; David Gobel, CEO of the Methuselah Fund, and Douglas Jay Cohen, CEO of medical device company IR Medtek. Additionally, Organovo will have a new leadership team, Viscient co-founder Jeffrey N. Miner will be the new Chief Scientific Officer (CSO); Chris Heberlig has taken on the role as President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and Thomas Jurgensen is the new General Counsel for Organovo. While the existing executive officers, including CEO Taylor Crouch, will step down.

Attempting to continue where Organovo’s previous leaders left off, means trying to achieve the regulatory approvals for its therapeutic candidates. When Murphy left the company in 2017, Organovo had been developing in vivo liver tissues to treat end-stage liver disease and a select group of life-threatening, orphan diseases, for which there are limited treatment options other than organ transplantation. Perhaps now, we will start to hear good news about the company, taking strides to slowly recover its leading position in the thriving field of biotechnology. With combined decades of leadership experience in the life science industry, the renewed team could promote innovation to develop regenerative medicine therapies aimed at treating a range of serious liver diseases, which was part of Organovo’s original vision.

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