Big Money For Glaring Global Health Needs: George Scangos on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is George Scangos.

Scangos is the CEO of San Francisco-based Vir Biotechnology. He’s best known for his last job as the CEO of Biogen, one of the industry’s biggest companies.

George Scangos, CEO, Vir Biotechnology

He left that high-profile perch a little more than two years ago. Like many big company veterans, he heard the siren song to join a startup. In this case, it was from Arch Venture Partners.

The vision was pretty simple. All these new technologies that are enabling advances in cancer biology, particularly with harnessing the immune system to fight tumors, could also be harnessed toward fighting infectious diseases. Everyone in the world during 2016 was trying to elbow into cancer. Not infectious disease. There was an obvious gap in the market. You make more money treating cancer than you do by making a new flu vaccine.

Arch wondered – given the state of technology, what could a startup do for infectious disease if it were given a massive war chest – something like $500 million or $600 million? Many little infectious disease startups die from starvation – i.e. lack of capital. In this case, would the money help assemble the team and the technologies necessary to pull off something big? It’s an open question at Vir, at this early stage of gestation.

Usually in these interviews, I ask a lot about people’s life experiences. This time, I skipped that, because I had already written a magazine-type profile of Scangos in 2011 for Xconomy. You can read that article here.

The gist is that George Scangos is the product of a working-class, Greek immigrant family in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s not far from the throbbing heartbeat of biotech in Kendall Square, but, to use a cliché, it’s culturally a world away. Scangos’s life journey is a good reminder that amazing things are possible in this country because of investments and systems put in place decades and decades ago by far-sighted leaders. It’s also important to remember today that medicine is for everyone – from Cambridge MA to Lynn MA and way beyond — especially when you’re talking about the fight against infectious diseases that are global.

We talked in this conversation some about science and company building, but also toward the end about how Vir can and should think about fair and responsible pricing of its products (if it creates any). This is a conversation that needs to happen in every company, at every stage of maturation.

Now, join me and George Scangos for The Long Run.


From Merck Fast Track to Computer Chem Frontier: Karen Akinsanya on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Karen Akinsanya.

Karen Akinsanya, chief biomedical scientist, Schrodinger

Karen is the chief biomedical scientist at Schrodinger. The New York-based company is a leader in computational chemistry for drug discovery. The company is privately held, and not a household name. But some wealthy and powerful people know it well. Schrodinger counts Bill Gates and David E. Shaw, the hedge fund billionaire, among its major shareholders. Nimbus Therapeutics and Morphic Therapeutic are a couple of young companies that have made strides with its computer modeling to develop new drugs.

Karen came to Schrodinger in 2018 from Big Pharma – Merck, to be specific. She received her PhD in endocrine physiology at Imperial College London. She worked her way from the lab bench to many different aspects of the pharmaceutical business. She was going places at Merck. But as she puts it, she likes new challenges. Karen is focused now on what Schrodinger can enable – how it can put a dent in the industry’s stubborn problem – the lack of drug R&D productivity.   

Karen is a native of the UK, an immigrant, a Mom, and someone who devotes considerable time and energy to youth science education. She recognizes the importance of role models who can encourage young people to go down paths they might not have known existed. I wish I had asked her more about that work, but it was good to at least hear her philosophy on why she makes time for science education volunteer work. It comes up toward the end of the conversation.

Now, join me and Karen Akinsanya for The Long Run.


Messenger RNA Therapies That You May Not Have Heard Of: Ron Renaud on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Ron Renaud.

Ron is the CEO of Lexington, Mass.-based Translate Bio. The company is working on messenger RNA therapies. You may have heard about this technology. mRNA molecules provide genetic instructions for making proteins. The idea is to restore functional proteins that, for one reason or another, have gone awry in a disease process. If you can inject mRNA directly into people – always a big IF – then theoretically the cell machinery can be harnessed to essentially turn patients into their own mini-drug factories.

Ron Renaud, CEO, Translate Bio

While Moderna captures most of the attention in this subsector of biotech – pulling off the industry’s biggest-ever IPO in December 2018 – it’s not the only game in this particular town. Translate is developing assets that have been tested for more than a decade, stretched back to early stealthy work done at Shire, the rare disease company. Translate actually went public six months before Moderna.

Ron comes to this juncture after a long and successful career on the business and finance side of the house. His biotech career took off at Amgen, and then he took a detour to Wall Street before coming back into executive leadership at Keryx and Idenix. Idenix was a turnaround story that he left on a high note, with a $3.9 billion acquisition by Merck.

Ron is not a scientist, and doesn’t try to pose as one. The important thing is that if you are a biotech CEO who’s a non-scientist, you had better be fluent in the scientific concepts, know the key questions to ask, and hire good people. Ron does all of that. Listening to him, I think you’ll hear a certain amount of humility in his voice. That’s a healthy thing, in my view.

It was a pleasure to speak with Ron about his career arc, hear his thoughts on biotech management, and the industry’s role within the society at large.


First Everest, Now Kilimanjaro: Climb With Me and a Great Biotech Team to Fight Cancer

Summiting the highest peak in the world and raising $340,000 for cancer research at Fred Hutch was the start.

It was the start of something bigger.

Today, I’m overjoyed to say that an outstanding team of biotech executives and investors will join me on the Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer. This will be a 7-day expedition to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, in late July.

Like Everest, this climb will be a big fundraiser for cancer research at Fred Hutch, a leading center for immunotherapy.

Unlike Everest, the pinnacle of Kili can be reached without supplemental oxygen tanks and fancy technical gear. At 19,340 feet, Kili is within reach for anyone in good physical shape, a willingness to train for a few months, and a desire to support this great cause.

So far, 16 climbers are confirmed. They are leveraging their networks to raise $50,000 apiece.

Look who’s joined the Kilimanjaro team so far:

Bob More. Bob is a veteran biotech venture capitalist, now serving as a partner with Alta Partners and as an advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s a skier, and two-time climber of Kilimanjaro. Bob is functioning as campaign co-chair, providing me with valuable support and advice. (Donate to Bob’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign.)

Garry Menzel, CEO, Cambridge, Mass.-based TCR2 Therapeutics. Garry is not only running an aspiring leader in the field of engineered T-cell receptor therapies for cancer, he’s an accomplished mountaineer. Notable ascent: Manaslu in Nepal. It’s the eighth-highest mountain in the world. (Donate to Garry’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign.)

Praveen Tipirneni, CEO, Waltham, Mass.-based Morphic Therapeutic. Praveen is running a company that has used a combination of proprietary crystallography images, high-powered computational simulations, and small-molecule chemistry to sprint ahead with new drug candidates against integrin targets. This fall, AbbVie wrote a $100 million upfront check help advance this work. Praveen also happens to be a runner. We once shared a van ride on the 24-hour road race called “Reach the Beach” in New Hampshire. Apparently, that sweaty van ride didn’t dissuade him from accepting this invitation. (Donate to Praveen’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Kelly O’Brien, vice president of philanthropy, Seattle-based Fred Hutch. Kelly O’Brien was the key decision-maker at Fred Hutch who bet on the Everest campaign before success was assured – both on the mountain, and in the fundraising department. Kelly is also an experienced climber. She has summited Kilimanjaro, and trekked to Everest Base Camp, elevation 17,500. (Donate to Kelly’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Zoe Barry, CEO, Boston-based ZappRx. Zoe is an up-and-coming entrepreneur offering software solutions to streamline the prescription management of specialty medicines. She’s also a runner, having participated in the “Reach the Beach” run organized by Bruce Booth of Atlas Venture. (Donate to Zoe’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Kristin Anderson, Kristin is a postdoc in Phil Greenberg’s lab at Fred Hutch. The lab boss is a co-founder of Juno Therapeutics, and a world leader in CAR-T and TCR cell therapy. Anderson is a cancer survivor (triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis at age 28), and she’s also a rising scientific star. This fall, she won a Presidential Award winner for young investigators from the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC). She says she enjoys hiking in the Cascades, but doesn’t get out as much as she’d like. Wonder why? (Donate to Kristin’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Bill Newell, CEO, South San Francisco-based Sutro Biopharma. Bill’s company is developing antibody-drug conjugates for cancer. The key twist is that Sutro makes its large molecules in a cell-free platform, aiming to sidestep the cost and complexity of classical biologics manufacturing in eukaryotic cell lines. Sutro has a number of well-known partners, and was a member of the Biotech IPO class of 2018. (Donate to Bill’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Lesley Stolz, head, JLABS Bay Area. Lesley is a veteran of biotech business development. For those unfamiliar, JLABS is part of Johnson & Johnson. JLABS sets up quality lab space for entrepreneurs to help them hit the ground running with experiments that are essential for little companies to grow up and win the next round of funding from venture capitalists. (Donate to Lesley’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Luke Timmerman, founder & editor, Timmerman Report. I’ve been writing and speaking about biotech since 2001. (Donate to Luke’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Simba Gill, CEO, Evelo Biosciences; venture partner, Flagship Pioneering. Evelo is based on new insights into the interactions of the microbiome and the immune system in the tumor microenvironment. Evelo is a member of the Biotech IPO Class of 2018. Born in Tanzania, Simba’s mother summited Kilimanjaro when she was pregnant with him. Dang. (Donate to Simba’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Heidi Hagen, co-founder, chief strategy officer, Vineti. Heidi is working to build a venture-backed software company to help cell and gene therapy companies manage specialized supply chains. She gained a wealth of experience in this tricky area at Dendreon. Heidi, in a past life, was twice named to the All-Pac10 team as a middle-distance runner at the University of Washington. (Donate to Heidi’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Uciane Scarlett, associate, Atlas Venture. Before joining Atlas in 2018, Uciane (pronounced “You-sha-knee”) was a director of business development and strategy at Compass Therapeutics. Compass is a private company working on treatments for autoimmunity and cancer. Uciane got her PhD in cancer immunology from Dartmouth College. (Donate to Uciane’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Sandy Zweifach, founder and CEO, South San Francisco-based Nuvelution Pharma. Sandy has a diverse set of experiences in business development, investment banking and venture capital over the past 25 years. Nuvelution, backed by Clarus Ventures and Novo A/S, seeks to increase R&D output through risk-sharing collaborations. As a climber, he attempted Pico de Orizaba, one of the famous Mexican volcanoes, years ago. (Donate to Sandy’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Nancy Miller-Rich, CEO, Miller-Rich Associates. Before starting her own consulting firm in September 2017, Nancy was a senior vice president at Merck. She oversaw global human health business development and licensing, strategy and commercial operations. That gave her direct profit-and-loss involvement in a $38 billion business. At Merck, she closed 300 deals, involving $10 billion in value creation. Nancy has also dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro for years. (Donate to Nancy’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Kirsten Axelsen, vice president for strategy and new business assessment, Pfizer Innovative Health. Kirsten leads the team that crafts strategy for the Pfizer Innovative Health business, and the company’s patient-focused vision. Through nearly two decades at Pfizer, Axelsen has made her name as someone “uniquely savvy about the complex commercial and political landscape into which today’s drugs are developed and launched,” said Nina Kjellson, a general partner with Canaan Partners. Kjellson adds that Axelsen is a mother to twins, a marathon runner and “all-around bad-ass.” (Donate to Kirsten’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Nina Kjellson, general partner, Canaan Partners. Nina is one of the most respected biotech VCs in the business. One of her current portfolio companies is Vineti, (see above) the software company striving to advance the cell and gene therapy revolution. (Donate to Nina’s Climb to Fight Cancer campaign).

Want to join this private group on the highest peak in Africa, July 17-28?

This campaign is shaping up into something special. Simple math says that 20 climbers each raising $50,000 adds up to $1 million.

We are well on our way to that goal with 16 climbers. At least a dozen more are considering joining. Our group limit is 28.

Together, we will raise a ton of cash and awareness for this exciting moment in cancer research.

Want to join the Kilimanjaro team?

Interested in sponsoring?

Email: luke@timmermanreport.com

Thank you for everything you do in the fight against cancer.


Google Money at Work in Biology: Krishna Yeshwant on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Krishna Yeshwant.

Krishna is a general partner with GV, the corporate venture firm formerly known as Google Ventures. He is a rare bird – a Stanford computer scientist and a Harvard physician. With this combination of professional interests, and with the resources of Google to invest in fledgling companies, Krishna has acquired an unusual vantage point on where things are going, and where they could go, in biotech and healthcare.

Krishna Yeshwant, partner, GV

GV, like most corporate venture firms, doesn’t promote itself as much as traditional venture firms that need to hit up Limited Partners for new cash every 3-5 years. Krishna doesn’t talk to the media much. I enjoy talking with him on a semi-regular basis, and appreciate this extended look into his thinking on the podcast. He has his hands in a huge number of pies in biopharma, in genomic diagnostics, and in biology-and-healthcare software.

Krishna recently turned 40, a traditional time to take stock on one’s work.

Here’s one safe bet: He will be around a long time, keeping his finger on the pulse of biology and computing.

Before we dive in, a word from our sponsor.

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So, back to that brief word from our sponsor:

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To learn more about PPD Biotech or to schedule a meeting with us at the upcoming J.P. Morgan conference, visit www.PPDbiotech.com/longrun.

Now, join me and Krishna Yeshwant for another episode of The Long Run.


Extending Human Healthspan: Ned David of Unity Biotech on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Nathaniel David.

He goes by Ned for short.

Ned is the co-founder and president of Unity Biotechnology. The company, founded in 2011 and based in Brisbane, Calif., comes from an emerging school of thought around clearing out senescent cells.

Ned David, co-founder and president, Unity Biotechnology

The wager at Unity is that by clearing out these senescent cells that accumulate in old folks, it should be able to treat certain diseases of aging. Starting with osteoarthritis.

Unity’s ambitions actually go far beyond osteoarthritis. It bills itself as a company that’s “extending human healthspan.” That’s not the same as simply extending human lifespan — helping humans live longer. The marketing makeover at Unity, and some of its rivals, is partly in an effort to distance itself from the hucksterism and wishful thinking that has long dogged the science and commerce of “anti-aging.” He’s trying to walk a line other entrepreneurs have been down, where they want to captivate people’s imaginations about what’s possible around vitality in older age, but without indulging in Ponce de Leon “fountain of youth” fantasies.

Immortality is really an alluring and enduring myth. Remember telomeres, sirtuins, and the Singularity? Yikes!

At age 51, Ned David is an interesting character to enter this arena of biotech. He’s a serial scientific entrepreneur with a string of successes (Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, Syrrx, Achaogen) and a few battle scars (Sapphire Energy, Kilimanjaro Energy). He gets exposed to a lot of far-out scientific concepts through his longstanding role as a venture partner with Arch Venture Partners.

Ned has a myriad of interests that span science, business and policy. I always enjoy talking with him, and I think you’ll enjoy this wide-ranging conversation across more than a couple domains.

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