- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

Linda Powers can’t put a number on the trips she’s made to India and Asia during the past several years. With investments in five companies actively developing stem-cell drugs in the region, her time is divided between hemispheres.

Ms. Powers is the managing director of the venture firm Toucan Capital Corp. of Bethesda and chairwoman of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission. Since 2001, Toucan has invested about $100 million in companies developing cutting-edge regenerative medicine that uses stem cells.

“We are the only investment fund in the entire United States that has taken the plunge and has made large and consistent investments in stem cells for over six years now,” she said.

“The portfolio of 14 stem-cell companies that we have built is literally the only such existing portfolio in the entire United States or anywhere else as far as we know.”

Ms. Powers’ professional career follows a trail of challenging experiences that includes executing corporate raider deals in the 1980s; an appointment as deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department of the first George Bush administration, where she co-led negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement; and a stint establishing electricity plants and oil and gas pipelines for Enron Corp. in the emerging markets of South America and Asia in the 1990s.

“My experiences have given me an ability to evaluate underlying assets,” she said. “With technology, you have to know the unmet potential, and I love dealing with cutting-edge technologies that we are turning into real-world applications that can put people’s lives back together.”

After leaving government for the private sector, Ms. Powers not only found work she loved in venture capital but also love itself. While at Enron, she occasionally discussed with Robert Hemphill, a co-founder of Enron’s rival energy company AES Corp., opportunities in the venture capital world.

“We met at the World Bank, which was prophetic,” Ms. Powers said. “Eventually we started talking about venture capital and we went from archrivals to collaborators on the venture capital firm to getting married. It was a sort of personal evolution.”

While getting an Ivy League education at Princeton and Harvard, Ms. Powers did not take science courses, but she is a strong believer in science and so when investment in stem-cell research companies tailed off after the boom and bust cycle of the mid-1990s, she saw opportunity.

“This is high-risk, high-reward and we’re not waiting,” she said. “One of the biggest paradigm shifts of the drug sector is on the horizon, and the people with the best chance to win get in on the ground floor.”

There is a reason five of the 14 companies Toucan is invested in are developing drug therapies overseas, where there are few restrictions on the type of stem cells researchers can use. She describes health care policies in the United States as “unbalanced” and as having “no common sense.”

“The system is much more receptive to stem-cell research over there,” she said. “The stem-cell policies here are ridiculous and damaging but that’s not even the whole picture of how difficult it is to develop products in the U.S. There is no balance between a personalized, nonharmful product and one that can be harmful. It’s all approved the same way.”

President Bush used the only veto of his presidency thus far to block legislation that would allow federal funding for research on embyronic stem cells.

Mark Johnston, president of Vesta Therapeutics in North Carolina, said Ms. Powers is an integral part of stem-cell technology here as well as abroad.

“Linda is a pioneer in the stem-cell translation space, boldly investing in seed stage stem-cell companies, a place few dare to tread,” he said. “Linda is no mere investor. She understands the science and the financial implications to bring a novel cell-therapy product to market.”

Northwest Biotherapeutics in Washington is developing a drug that uses a person’s immune cells against brain tumors. The product, known as the dendritic cell vaccine, is set to go on the market in Switzerland this fall and is in the drug-approval process in the United States.

“It is the most exciting product in our portfolio,” she said. “It is going to give people with one of the worst types of cancer, brain cancer, hope and more time.”

In addition, Toucan’s investments include a new treatment that could help troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Theradigm Inc., a Gaithersburg company started with investment funds from Toucan, is about to take into clinical trials a yet-to-be-named drug that has shown the ability to repair brain function in animals. To the military’s surprise, brain injuries among troops is occurring at a high rate.

“There are so many soldiers caught in explosive devices and get terrible brain damage. This is a promising product for them,” she said.

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