30-year Gilead R&D vet Norbert Bischofberger is starting over as staffer #5 at an upstart biotech — and he’s loving it
After spending the past 30 years before the R&D mast at Gilead, ex-research chief Norbert Bischofberger is starting over from scratch.
This morning, just a few weeks after his formal departure from the head job at one of the world’s top 15 drug research organizations, Bischofberger is jumping on board at an upstart biotech with just 4 full time staffers.
He’s chipped in to an $18 million seed round — roughly 1/200th the size of this year’s R&D budget at Gilead — to launch Kronos Bio. The biotech in-licensed a platform technology out of the lab of MIT professor Angela Koehler focused on modulating transcription factors in cancer, with two preclinical programs focused on MYC and the red hot androgen receptor target. And they’re taking a shot at breaking new ground in cancer R&D.
This isn’t a spur of the moment decision, Bischofberger tells me. He started actively hunting around for a new biotech startup idea in January. And when Kite founder, biotech entrepreneur and venture investor Arie Belldegrun was talking over his plans for Kronos with Gilead chairman John Martin, Martin pointed him in Bischofberger’s direction, knowing that he had begun to hunt for the right startup.
“I wanted to start my own company,” says Bischofberger, “but it was a very vague idea, thinking about AI and healthcare.” In January, he attended a conference on AI to explore it more and came to the realization that “everybody and their mother is doing AI. Then along came Arie.”
With his background and these kinds of connections, Bischofberger could just as easily have raised $100 million-plus. But he’s intent on taking a measured approach early on, happy to have invested a chunk of his own money in the startup to reserve substantial equity. And in addition to the FTEs on board, employee #5 at Kronos also can tap 15 to 20 staffers under contract in India.
“I want to do it again,” says a cheerful Bischofberger, “I’m 62, I feel like 42 and behave like I’m 22… I’ve done it and seen it all, now I want to apply it to my own ideas.”
Bischofberger’s departure may have been a surprise to many, but these days experienced biopharma execs can practically write their own tickets in biotech. George Scangos left Biogen to start Vir and David Meeker left the helm at Genzyme to launch KSQ. Belldegrun himself went from the $12 billion sale of Kite to Gilead straight into a startup of his own, complete with an ambitious licensing pact in place with Pfizer. An exodus of Big Pharma execs, meanwhile, is populating the startup world, interested in growing big new companies on the back of promising new technologies.
Why do it? In Bischofberger’s view, it’s a chance to drop the myriad demands of a large organization, dominated by HR issues and more, and get back into focused drug development work.
Bischofberger plans to stay on the West Coast, even though Kronos is in Cambridge, MA, and will be growing the staff on the East Coast hub. But he counts his flight time as one of his most productive times, able to separate from his surroundings and concentrate on the mental tasks at hand. So he doesn’t see commuting as a waste of time.
John Martin likes it all. He volunteered to jump in on the seed round for the Two Rivers portfolio company. Other investors include Omega Funds, BellCo Capital and Vida Ventures, LLC. As part of the financing Bischofberger and Martin, as well as Rebecka Belldegrun — physician and wife of Kite founder Arie Beldegrun — and Otello Stampacchia joined the company’s board of directors.
Image: Norbert Bischofberger. KRONOS