From Nova Scotia to the Forefront of Bio & Tech Investing: Julie Sunderland of Biomatics on The Long Run

Julie Sunderland is the guest on the latest episode of The Long Run podcast.

She is a managing director at Biomatics Capital, a Seattle-based venture firm that invests in what it calls “data-enabled healthcare.”

Before diving into that, as always, I want listeners to get to know the person making things happen, and how she got here.

Julie Sunderland, managing director, Biomatics Capital

Sunderland her fellow investing partner Boris Nikolic worked together at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before starting their own firm in 2016. Sunderland, with a finance background and a deep understand of science-based business, was the architect of the Gates Foundation’s Program Related Investments structure and strategy. She figured out how the world’s largest philanthropy could make equity investments in biotech companies whose interests align with the foundation’s global health mission.

Nikolic, a scientist by training, was the personal science advisor for Bill Gates, and he handled some of Bill’s investments in biology plays like Foundation Medicine, Editas Medicine, Nimbus Therapeutics and Schrodinger. Essentially, these were extracurriculars that venture beyond the global health philanthropic mission of the foundation, but have far-reaching potential for all of biology.

Biomatics raised an initial fund of $200 million in 2016 and put it to work in an eclectic mix of therapeutics, diagnostic, and digital health or tool plays. The portfolio includes Denali Therapeutics (a neuroscience drug developer), Grail (early cancer detection), Twist Bioscience (DNA synthesis) and Verana Health (mining of electronic health records to assist drug developers).  

Last week, Biomatics announced it has closed on its second fund, this one with $300 million, to keep doing what it does.

Sunderland is also a down-to-earth person, raw and real. She grew up in a home in Nova Scotia that lacked electricity until she was 12. Now she interacts with some of the smartest entrepreneurs and investors in the world of biotech. It’s quite a life journey.

Now, sit back, relax, and join me and Julie Sunderland for The Long Run.


Exploring Synthetic Lethal Cancer Drug Discovery: Barbara Weber on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run podcast is Barbara Weber.

She is the CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Tango Therapeutics.

Ever hear the saying ‘it takes two to tango?’ That’s where this startup draws its inspiration. It’s seeking to discover and develop synthetic lethal cancer drugs. These are intended to target two molecular vulnerabilities of a cancer cell, not just one, like the first wave of targeted therapies did 20 years ago. The concept of ‘synthetic lethal’ is a hot area of cancer biology. Venture capital has been flowing for a couple years now to companies like Tango, Repare Therapeutics, Ideaya Biosciences and Cyteir Therapeutics.

Barbara Weber, CEO, Tango Therapeutics

Tango, founded in 2014, is still at quite an early stage. It has no drug candidates in the clinic. It will be years before it gets there, if ever.

Yet the science is interesting. I’ve written about Tango before, and invited Weber to speak about Tango last spring at my Boston Cancer Summit. That was a charity fundraiser for my Everest Climb to Fight Cancer campaign for research at the Fred Hutch.

Turns out she’s been busy since then.

Today, Tango is announcing its first big partnership. Gilead Sciences is paying $50 million upfront to get the option to license five new targets that come from Tango’s discovery platform. Tango retains 100 percent ownership of its lead programs. Not too shabby.

Weber has the kind of resume you’d expect of someone serving as Dean of Genetics at some distinguished university. She’s an MD by training, did a residency at Yale, fellowship at Dana-Farber, became a professor of genetics at Michigan and Penn. She left academia for industry, taking R&D leadership roles at Big Pharma stalwarts GSK and Novartis.

She ended up at Third Rock Ventures, the Boston and San Francisco-based venture firm that starts companies focused on emerging areas of biology. Hearing her describe her career arc, she seems to have gotten into the right kind of situation where she and her team can execute on something she’s long wanted to do.

Now, join me and Barbara Weber for The Long Run.


Nine VCs Who Matter, But You Never Read About

Venture capitalists see a steady stream of people asking for money and currying favor. This can inflate the ego to unhealthy proportions. The best VCs, however, don’t let all that get to their head. They also don’t just write checks. They help entrepreneurs.

Quite a few of the best VCs in biotech tend to work behind the scenes. You don’t see them seeking media attention, and rarely see them on panels.

So who are some of the venture investors who have major-league stuff, but who you never read about?

Go to KNect365 for this preview article as you think about who you might want to meet at the Biotech Showcase in January in San Francisco.


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.