Drug Development

Axel Bouchon starts signing players for a new league of game-changing biotechs

Axel Bouchon

Axel Bouchon

Axel Bouchon is the point man at Bayer who’s taking a concept outlined on a piece of paper back in December and turning it into a $335 million biotech with more than 100 development staffers in key locations in the U.S. and Europe. That’s a big task, but it’s only one facet in a much more ambitious life science game plan he’s quarterbacking for Bayer, ramping up 3 to 5 startups with financing rounds stretching from $100 million to $300 million or more.

Step 1 is Casebia, a joint venture Bayer partnered with CRISPR Therapeutics that will look to carve out a leadership position in three key areas using CRISPR/Cas 9 gene editing tech. Swiss-based, CRISPR Therapeutics has organized its R&D group in Cambridge, MA, where the scientific talent is, and they’re planning to move the startup into the beating heart of the region’s booming biotech hub on Kendall Square, as we reported on Friday.

In a follow-up interview, Bouchon outlined Casebia’s future, as well as Bayer’s plans to use this as one model for a lineup of big biotech launches that are beginning to take shape now.

“Essentially, over the last 4 months we gave the baby [Casebia] a home,” Bouchon tells me. “It’s a huge benefit, having two fully fledged companies as the mother.”

The Casebia family involves about 30 employees right now, with only a handful actually signed up to work at the biotech. The rest, like Bayer’s protein engineering staffers in Cologne, are contributing to the work. But as interim CEO, Bouchon has started signing up what will be a dedicated team of 80 in Cambridge, another 10-15 in San Francisco, where it has a campus at Mission Bay, and another 10-15 in Germany.

That may sound big compared to most venture-backed biotech startups, where the number is usually limited to 20-30 staffers, “but the joint venture is carving out entire therapeutic areas,” notes Bouchon. “If we find 50 targets, we work on 50 targets.”

Bayer is contributing $300 million to funding the research in the first 5 years. And Bouchon isn’t the least bit intimidated by the numbers. When I suggested that a big Series A for his other startups could start at $50 million, he quickly ruled that out as “too small,” preferring to start out with a bigger number like $100 million. He also likes the way Casebia brings in a franchise player like CRISPR Therapeutics to get things started at a more advanced level.

“It’s a true team,” he adds, in a 50/50 partnership where he’ll be the interim CEO and CRISPR Therapeutics’ Rodger Novak, who we last saw capping off a $140 million venture round, is taking the chairman’s post. (Novak has gone quiet for now, as the biotech gives every appearance of setting the stage for an IPO. Companies based in Switzerland are generally more careful than most is following the rules.)

Bayer has picked a slate of game-changing fields to replicate Casebia in. Bouchon is a little reluctant to call these new ventures moon shots, a popular term in government and the industry. But they’re all aimed at paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in its three big R&D zones: human, animal and plant tech.

Bayer has picked five fields so far: DNA editing, stem cells, RNA inhibition or activation, and the microbiome.

The microbiome has already emerged as a next-gen tech at Bayer’s ag division. Now they want to use that scientific expertise to tackle humans, in a field that has drawn a group of new players in Cambridge, MA and the Bay Area. Both of those hubs are likely to play a big role in Bayer’s startup plans, though the Massachusetts cluster looms largest in the hunt for the best and the brightest.

Says Bouchon: “To be honest, the key hub with the key talent is Boston and then San Francisco. Cambridge is number one right now. That will attract also the next wave” of startups.

But Bayer also likes combining global sites, and is mindful of the growing role that Japan is playing in target areas like stem cell research.

None of this is going to be easy or particularly quick, notes Bouchon. When you pick out next-gen fields, you can hope that this is like betting on monoclonal antibodies in the early ‘80s. But there are some big scientific and medical challenges to face off, including the development of better delivery systems to do this in vivo.

“The pitfall is that it’s science and it’s very early.” Translating that to the public, when the technology is complex and difficult to explain, also makes it hard to convey the disruptive thinking that Bayer is drawn to with these biotech upstarts.

But that won’t stop him from trying.

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