Making it Easy to Share Biological Data: John Wilbanks on The Long Run Podcast

John Wilbanks is today’s guest on The Long Run podcast.

He’s the chief commons officer of Sage Bionetworks. He’s also a senior fellow with FasterCures.

Sage, for those unfamiliar, is a nonprofit biomedical research organization, founded in Seattle in 2009 by a couple of veterans of Merck. Co-founders Stephen Friend and Eric Schadt recognized that no single company’s R&D labs, no matter how smart and well-funded, have the same kind of capability as the crowd. Sage seeks to promote innovations in personalized medicine by enabling what it calls “a community-based approach to scientific inquiries and discoveries.”

As Wilbanks says, he “likes making it easy to share things.”

This is easier said than done.

The questions that Wilbanks wrestles with every day are of crucial importance to anyone who cares about how science gets done, how people get rewarded for advancing a field, and how quickly we can convert data into medically beneficial information and knowledge. This conversation is a look at some big picture ideas that are relevant to everyone in both the biopharmaceutical industry, and academic science.

Now, join me and John Wilbanks for The Long Run.


Overcoming a Bad Job Market, Finding a Path in Biotech: Sabah Oney on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Sabah Oney.

He’s the chief business officer of South San Francisco-based Alector.

You could be excused if you’ve never heard of Alector or Sabah Oney. Neither makes a lot of noise. But Oney is an up-and-comer, and the company has been on my radar for some time.

Alector is a serious drug discovery shop working on novel targets for neurodegenerative diseases, including the biggie – Alzheimer’s. The targets were identified with genome-wide association studies (GWAS), and the team has considerable antibody engineering expertise to go after them. Alector has a partner, AbbVie, that shelled out $205 million upfront last October for the right to co-develop just two of Alector’s drug candidates at the point of proof-of-concept.

Sabah Oney, chief business officer, Alector

Oney, age 36, worked closely with CEO Arnon Rosenthal to close that mammoth partnership with AbbVie. Last summer, he and Rosenthal were at it again, raising a $133 million Series E venture round. The easy thing to do in this IPO go-go year would have been to strike while the iron is hot, and go public, even in the dicey preclinical stage. But it opted to stay private a while longer, so they could amass a pile of data from early clinical development that will help it stay independent for the long-term.   

In this show, Oney talks about his upbringing in the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, and emigrating to the US for a scientific education in genomics. Graduating at the time of the financial crisis, you’ll also get a sense for his resilience and hustle. He cleverly found a way to get a foot in the door of the biotech industry during the industry’s lean years.

Now, join me and Sabah Oney for The Long Run.


Health Data That Can Meet Pharma Standards: Amy Abernethy on The Long Run

Amy Abernethy is the latest guest on The Long Run podcast.

Amy Abernethy, chief medical officer and chief scientific officer, Flatiron Health

Amy is the chief medical and chief scientific officer of Flatiron Health in New York City. She’s an MD/PhD, and previously was a tenured professor at Duke University. She made a name for herself there with more than 400 peer-reviewed publications. She honed her ideas there around using technology platforms to improve cancer clinical trials, outcomes research and health policy.

She’s smart, and a forward thinker.

The last few years, Amy has been working to translate some of her longstanding academic ideas into practical reality at Flatiron. The company makes Electronic Medical Records for cancer physicians. It aggregates data from their practices, cleans it up so that it’s clear and consistent enough to use in FDA new drug applications, and sells that quality data on things like how patients perform on certain medications, etc. to pharma companies. The company was acquired by Roche in February for $2.1 billion.

In a world where lots of healthcare software companies are all-hat-and-no-cattle, Flatiron is unusual. It doesn’t just hoover up data and claim it’s changing the world. It works hard to make sure that data has meaning for drug development.

I often find tech press releases to be so full of buzzword gobbledygook that I can barely intuit what a company does when I’m done reading. This conversation with Amy was a breath of fresh air. She was able to explain things in a way that I could understand. I think you’ll agree.

Now join me and Amy Abernethy for The Long Run.


Telling Biotech Stories on TV: Listen to Meg Tirrell on The Long Run Podcast

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Meg Tirrell.

Meg is the biotech and pharmaceuticals reporter at CNBC. This is a big job. People that control billions in investment dollars regularly keep an eye on the cable TV investment channel for breaking news and analysis on interest rates, the stock market, currencies and more. Meg makes sure they get timely, factually accurate, and contextual coverage of biotech and pharmaceuticals. Someone needs to do this and do it well. We all know biopharma is an important part of the global economy, and that it’s not very widely understood.

Meg Tirrell, biotech and pharma reporter, CNBC

Before joining CNBC, Meg got her start in science and business journalism at Bloomberg News.

Some listeners may recall that Meg and I served as co-hosts of the Signal podcast for STAT from its founding in 2015 to the spring of 2017. (Archives here).

From working with Meg, I can say she is an excellent reporter, writer, and a good colleague and friend. It was fun in this episode to ask her a few things about her life, and about television reporting, that were new to me.

Listeners should note that this episode was recorded in late August — before Agios announced that Jackie Fouse will become its next CEO. So unfortunately, the speculation you hear about her going to Gilead Sciences is now out of date. But I think the larger point being made still holds.

Last thing — Meg has a personal announcement to make on this show. You’ll have to listen to the end to hear it.

Now, join me and Meg Tirrell for The Long Run.


Building Startups With Pharma Needs in Mind: Thong Le on The Long Run Podcast

Today’s guest on The Long Run podcast is Thong Le.

Le is the CEO of Accelerator Life Science Partners. It’s a venture capital backed operation that starts and nurtures biotech startups in Seattle, New York, San Diego and other places outside the main industry clusters of Boston and San Francisco.

Thong Le, CEO, Accelerator Life Science Partners

Accelerator, founded in 2003, currently invests out of a $63 million fund, and has seven active startups in its portfolio. Arch Venture Partners and Alexandria Real Estate Equities are a couple of stalwart members of its syndicate. As CEO for the past five years, Le has helped bring a group of big pharma corporate VCs into the fold – including J&J, Pfizer, AbbVie, Eli Lilly.

In this episode, we talked about the approach Accelerator takes to starting new companies, and how it likes to work with scientific entrepreneurs at academic institutions. This is a conversation for anyone in the world of early-stage investment. This is the murky intersection where scientific discoveries either succeed or fail to grow into a product.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Le more than 15 years. We have sort of grown up together in Seattle’s biotech community. The past year, rather than work from just any co-working space, I’ve chosen to sublease a private office from Accelerator, just down the hall from him and his team. This makes him my landlord. I lease this space because I like to stay in touch with Timmerman Report subscribers, and I particularly like to bounce ideas off of Thong as a representative reader. Take that for what it’s worth.

Now, join me and Thong Le for The Long Run.


The Antibiotic Opportunity? Spero’s Ankit Mahadevia on The Long Run Podcast

Today’s guest on The Long Run podcast is Ankit Mahadevia.

Mahadevia is the CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Spero Therapeutics. It’s an antibiotic developer. Specifically, it’s focused on new strategies for fighting gram-negative bacterial infections that are increasingly resistant to our existing set of antibiotics.

Ankit Mahadevia, CEO, Spero Therapeutics

Despite persistent warnings from global health authorities about the rise of multi-drug resistant bugs, and the need for new antibiotics to fight them, most major pharma companies have a limited appetite for this area of R&D, or have bailed out. There hasn’t been much money to make.

Mahadevia started thinking differently about the future of antibiotics a few years ago as an entrepreneur in residence at Atlas Venture. The team there came upon some research from Finland into a set of potentiator molecules, which they thought could create an opening on the surface of gram-negative bacteria. This is a pretty clever idea. Essentially, the thought is that these potentiators should allow many of our existing gram-positive directed antibiotics to get inside these hardy bugs and kill them. The science created enough of an opportunity for Spero to raise significant venture capital. I first wrote about the company when it raised its Series A venture capital round in June 2015. The company went public last November.

On this show, Mahadevia talks about a whole set of varied career experiences that led him to this moment in antibiotic R&D, along with some creative ideas being floated now to create new incentives to revitalize this important field. Anyone interested in creative thinking about staving off the post-antibiotic world will find this to be an interesting listen.

Now, join me and Ankit Mahadevia for The Long Run.

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