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Former Biotech CEO Accused in San Diego Shooting


By Marie Powers
Staff Writer

The biotech world was stunned Friday morning when reports trickled out of San Diego that the former CEO of a failed biotech allegedly shot and wounded a former colleague and a brother-in-law in separate incidents before he was taken into custody by the San Diego Police Department.

Hans Petersen, who headed La Jolla, Calif.-based Traversa Therapeutics Inc., was booked into jail after the incidents involving scientist Steven Dowdy, a professor at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and inventor of Traversa’s siRNA drug delivery technology, and Ronald Fletcher, the brother of Petersen’s estranged wife.

The description of the crime reads like the script from a television drama. According to San Diego Police spokesman Kevin Mayer, Dowdy and his wife were in the bedroom of their La Jolla neighborhood home Wednesday morning around 3 a.m. PST when an unknown person, later identified as Petersen, fired a gun multiple times into the room. Dowdy was struck once in the lower back and transported to a local hospital. No other occupants were injured, and Petersen fled the scene.

Around 7 a.m., Petersen allegedly broke into Fletcher’s home, located less than two miles from the Dowdy’s residence. Mayer said Petersen shot Fletcher once in the stomach, but Fletcher was able to disarm his assailant. During an ensuing fight, Fletcher struck Petersen with the gun. When officers arrived, Fletcher and Petersen were still inside the house. Petersen was identified as the shooting suspect and arrested. Both men were transported to a local hospital, according to the police.

A handgun was recovered at the scene of the second shooting. Mayer said police “are doing an extensive check on the weapon” but declined to say whether the gun was registered to Petersen.

According to investigators, the relationship between Petersen and Dowdy began to sour after Petersen was fired by Traversa’s board before the biotech folded, and Petersen “blamed Dowdy.” Police suggested Fletcher was targeted for his role in the marital separation between his sister and Petersen. Divorce proceedings began last year but the couple remains legally married.

Both injured men are expected to recover and have talked with police, Mayer said.

Petersen, who lives some seven miles from the shooting scenes, was treated and released from the hospital. According to Mayer, he was arrested for three counts of attempted homicide, one count of residential burglary, one count of shooting at an occupied dwelling and two counts of California Penal Code Section 12022.53(d), which refers to the commission of a felony involving discharge of a firearm and causing “great bodily injury” or death and carries an additional and consecutive prison term of 25 years to life over and above other charges.

Petersen’s vehicle, described as a 2007 335i BMW, also was recovered and impounded by the police. Mayer declined to divulge whether Petersen had previously been arrested or cited by San Diego police.

Petersen’s arraignment was set for Friday afternoon in San Diego Superior Court, but his public defender asked the court to delay arraignment until Monday afternoon, and the court agreed, according to Steve Walker, a spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney. No reason was given in open court.

Petersen was to remain in custody without bail until the arraignment, when formal charges are expected to be filed, Walker added.

Bankruptcy Leads to Strained Relationships

The shootings were the culmination of the worst fears of some of Petersen’s former colleagues and acquaintances, according to Corey Goodman, co-founder and managing partner of San Francisco-based Venbio, who serves as managing partner and lead investor of Dowdy’s recent start-up, Solstice Biologics LLC, which launched in January. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 7, 2013.)

“This is just a very sad day,” a shaken Goodman told BioWorld Today. “It saddens me, but it doesn’t shock me.”

Goodman characterized Petersen – as well as his brother, Scott Petersen, a Traversa co-founder – as “obsessed” with Dowdy and Solstice co-founder Curt Bradshaw after Traversa was liquidated in April 2012 following a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.

Bradshaw is a biotech veteran whose previous positions included vice president of chemistry at Covx Pharmaceuticals Inc., which was acquired by Pfizer Inc. in 2007.

“We have been worried about their safety because of emails and communications we have had with the two brothers,” Goodman said.

Founded in July 2006 and also based on intellectual property (IP) developed by Dowdy and his research group at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and UCSD, Traversa raised a $2 million financing in 2008 and was “on fire” in developing siRNA drug delivery technology, Hans Petersen told BioWorld Today at the time. (See BioWorld Today, April 9, 2008.)

Fourteen months later, Traversa snagged a $5 million Series B led by Morningside Venture Investments Ltd. and joined by Mesa Verde Venture Partners and existing investors. (See BioWorld Today, April 3, 2009.)

Goodman strongly denied reports published in the San Diego press that Solstice stole IP from Traversa or contributed to its downfall. Those allegations – largely picked up from Hans Petersen’s LinkedIn account, which claims “some Traversa intellectual property survives and is currently licensed by Solstice” – are completely baseless, he insisted.

“Let’s just put this to rest,” Goodman said. “Everyone better believe that we did incredibly thorough due diligence on Solstice. We know exactly what Scott and Hans are referring to. And I assure the community that this is delusional thinking. Nothing the company is working on comes from Traversa.”

Solstice, which does not yet have its own website, has not even published its IP, he added.

“I told Scott Petersen, in writing, as long ago as last December, that we did not need and were not using inventions from his IP – period,” Goodman said.

Scott Petersen, who worked as Dowdy’s post-doc at UCSD, tried to convince Goodman last year to license his technology during Traversa’s bankruptcy proceedings, but he refused. Goodman said he bid initially but withdrew when the price went too high.

“I didn’t want it, and I didn’t need it,” he said.

Venbio’s IP attorneys vetted the Petersens’ claims, as did attorneys for other Solstice investors, according to Goodman.

“We’ve scrubbed this backwards and forwards with the best IP attorneys in the country,” he explained. “We would not have invested otherwise. There is nothing we are doing at Solstice that has anything to do with the Petersens.”

Scott Petersen’s LinkedIn site lists him as founder and CEO of Triphos Therapeutics LLC, which is said to hold exclusive license for IP from Liposciences LLC for a method to deliver oligonucleotides as phosphotriesters.

The shootings sent a ripple through the global biotech community but, in San Diego, “this topic has been on people’s minds for many months,” Goodman lamented.

The good news, he said, is that both men will recover. Ironically, Dowdy was scheduled to attend a Solstice board meeting Thursday morning.

“Obviously that was postponed,” Goodman said. “We look forward to having a board meeting in a few weeks with Steve present.”

The work by Solstice to create Ribonucleic Neutrals – cell-permeable RNAi prodrugs designed to enter many different cell types – is moving forward, he added.

“I never want to over-hype,” Goodman said, “but I’m cautiously optimistic that they may have solved for nucleic acids – double-stranded and perhaps even single-stranded – a novel way to make prodrugs that will allow these to get across membranes into many tissues.”

Ten horrible seconds could have cut that work short, he added. The silver lining was that a worse tragedy was averted.