Just the Beginning for Prelude Therapeutics Founder
March 26, 2020 –
Kris Vaddi, Ph.D., is not a native Delawarean, but in many respects, his exceptional career was born here. Vaddi is the founder and CEO of Prelude Therapeutics, an early stage biopharmaceutical company. Previously, he was the vice president of Incyte Corporation. Both are based in Wilmington, Delaware.
Since its launch in 2016, Prelude has outgrown its space two times. That pace is expected to continue. In 2019, the Council on Development Finance approved Prelude for a total of $834,090 in grants. (The company received nearly $500,000 from the state in 2017.)
The recent grants, which come from the Delaware Strategic Fund, are contingent upon Prelude meeting hiring goals by 2022. Currently, there are about 50 employees. “I could easily see adding another 50 people,” Vaddi says.
New hires will include scientists and skilled associates researching the drivers of cancer cell growth and survival, as well as treatment resistance. Prelude has two clinical trials in progress. Sites include the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Newark, Delaware, which is part of ChristianaCare, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
It is easy to see why Prelude Therapeutics was named to the Fierce BioTech’s 2019 “Fierce 15.” “It is a big deal—a badge of honor,” Vaddi says of the recognition. “It attracts investors willing to help a company grow.”
For Vaddi, Prelude Therapeutics is a dream come true. “I always wanted to start a company,” he says. “I wanted to create something that would reflect how I think about the world—but I didn’t want to just jump into it.” Instead, he patiently accumulated experience.
Vaddi—who earned doctorate degrees from Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in India and the University of Florida—joined DuPont Merck in 1993 as a post-doctorate fellow. He was particularly interested in studying white blood cells, which protect the body against infectious disease and foreign invaders. A proliferation indicates a disorder.
When the fellowship was complete, he moved to a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then a job opened up with DuPont Pharmaceuticals in 1999. “It was a very exciting opportunity to come back to Delaware,” he says. “And I’ve not left.”
In 2001, after Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired DuPont Pharmaceuticals, Vaddi and his colleagues began seeking other prospects. Enter Incyte, a genomics company based in Palo Alto, California.
Incyte, already a public company, had the capital and a pressing need to change direction. Pharmaceutical companies were no longer interested in paying top dollar for genomic databases. Incyte needed a fresh infusion of ideas, and the former DuPont employees had them.
“It was an opportunity to reinvent Incyte, and we said we would do it, if we could do it in Delaware,” Vaddi recalls. “We were a very, very small team—just a handful of people.”
The reinvention resulted in Jakafi, the first federally approved medication for two bone marrow disorders: myelofibrosis and polycythemia vera.
By 2014, Vaddi had gone part time to explore interests that he’d “put on the back burner,” including not-for-profit initiatives. “I still consider Incyte my baby,” he says. “Many of my good friends still work there.”
In early 2016, however, investors felt the time was right for Vaddi to start his own company. At the same time, there was available lab space on the University of Delaware STAR Campus. “The stars aligned,” says Vaddi, who opened Prelude with $5 million in seed funding. In 2017, the company moved to the Delaware Innovation Space, which was previously the DuPont Experimental Station.
Vaddi was back in the Delaware labs where he’d started.
The experimental station was designed to hold labs, not corporate offices. To accommodate Prelude’s growth, the company rented 5,000 square feet of space a few miles away. The year 2020 is a pivotal one for the company, which will need to expand again. Ideally, any new offices would be in the Wilmington, Delaware, area.
“I’ve developed good relationships with many people in Delaware,” Vaddi says. “I work very closely with the University of Delaware—I mentor students there.”
He also values the quality of life.
Indeed, the state has been “amazing in every respect,” he continues. “I love the proximity to Philadelphia and the ease with which I can travel to New York, where my investors are.”
Delaware is surrounded by universities with hirable talent, biotech companies and the contract research organizations that support early stage companies, he says. The Delaware Innovation Space is a nurturing incubator that gives small companies a sense of community, as well as cutting-edge equipment.
If you need further proof that Delaware is a hospitable place for business, look at the success of Incyte. Prelude seems on track to follow in that company’s success. And, no doubt, that is because Vaddi is at the helm.