Af­ter a bruis­ing turn as Sarep­ta CEO, Chris Garabe­di­an is back in biotech with a new role as god­fa­ther to a bunch of star­tups

Chris Garabe­di­an is back.

Two years af­ter the for­mer Sarep­ta CEO end­ed a tur­bu­lent reign marked by a roller coast­er ride for in­vestors — which is still not over, even af­ter the con­tro­ver­sial FDA OK of eteplirsen — Garabe­di­an has won $15 mil­lion from some loy­al back­ers at Per­cep­tive Ad­vi­sors to es­tab­lish a com­pa­ny that promis­es to guide biotech star­tups through that first crit­i­cal stage of de­vel­op­ment lead­ing to proof-of-con­cept da­ta.

This is brand new and its called Xon­toge­ny. Now that he has the first tranche of a $25 mil­lion com­mit­ment in hand, Garabe­di­an is putting to­geth­er a small team that will be tasked with god­fa­ther­ing new drug de­vel­op­ment for a group of would-be en­tre­pre­neurs who ei­ther can’t or re­al­ly don’t want to go the tra­di­tion­al VC route to fund a biotech start­up.

“I was get­ting a num­ber of calls from en­tre­pre­neurs who had an idea, had their hands on some­thing of val­ue, in­creas­ing­ly look­ing for some­one to part­ner with but with­out a lot of deep in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence,” Garabe­di­an tells me. VCs ei­ther weren’t all that in­ter­est­ed or want­ed way too much eq­ui­ty. These were “unique and good op­por­tu­ni­ties that would nev­er see a path­way for­ward un­less they found some­one to help them find a way for­ward.”

For about a half dozen to 10 new star­tups, Garabe­di­an and his team plan to play that role.

At one point, Per­cep­tive’s stake in Sarep­ta amount­ed to one of its largest in­vest­ments. And that gave Garabe­di­an time to get to know CEO Joseph Edel­man and the oth­er ex­ecs at Per­cep­tive, a fund which backs pub­lic biotechs and of­ten plays a crossover role in the lead up to an IPO. But Garabe­di­an stress­es that Xon­toge­ny isn’t a fund. They may be able to put up a few hun­dred thou­sand for seed cash to get things start­ed at a promis­ing new ven­ture, but most of Per­cep­tive’s mon­ey will go to cre­at­ing the team and fund­ing their op­er­a­tion through the start­up pe­ri­od.

The group will shep­herd new drugs through a proof-of-con­cept event, pro­vid­ing the in­fra­struc­ture on in­dus­try spe­cial­ists that each new biotech doesn’t re­al­ly need to start with from scratch. And then af­ter that point, they can con­sid­er what to do next, with all the usu­al choic­es of in­dus­try sale, a ven­ture round or IPO. And they plan to take eq­ui­ty in pay­ment, with Garabe­di­an fill­ing a role as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man or board mem­ber.

“It will be a rel­a­tive­ly small team,” says Garabe­di­an, “like a typ­i­cal se­nior biotech op­er­at­ing team, about 12 with sup­port staff” and ex­per­tise in things like pre­clin­i­cal tox and reg­u­la­to­ry work. And they can play a vir­tu­al role in man­ag­ing a range of star­tups. Garabe­di­an plans to work with aca­d­e­mics as well as some deeply pas­sion­ate dis­ease ad­vo­cates who are look­ing to launch a com­pa­ny around a new drug prospect, per­haps li­censed in. And he ex­cit­ed­ly told me — in gen­er­al terms — about sev­er­al he’s al­ready in talks with.

“What I’ve ob­served,” says Garabe­di­an, who com­plet­ed stints at Gilead and Cel­gene be­fore tak­ing the helm at Sarep­ta, “is that noth­ing has beat­en the val­ue of clin­i­cal proof-of-con­cept da­ta.”

That’s still true to­day, he adds, even with biotech val­u­a­tions run­ning high. He watched Sarep­ta shares shoot up from $45 to $55 a share on Phase II da­ta. To­day, with a drug on the mar­ket, it’s $35.

So what did he learn at Sarep­ta that would help guide him at Xon­toge­ny?

“I think Sarep­ta found it­self and I found my­self at the cen­ter of many things the in­dus­try and the FDA was grap­pling with,” he tells me. Maybe he was too trans­par­ent, he adds, though com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the pa­tient com­mu­ni­ty at every turn al­so pro­vid­ed a foun­da­tion of pas­sion­ate sup­port that was ul­ti­mate­ly crit­i­cal to the FDA ap­proval process. But per­haps the best les­son is that run­ning a pub­lic com­pa­ny is not his best role.

“I can be that pub­lic com­pa­ny CEO,” he says, “but that’s not what dri­ves me. I in­her­it­ed a30-year-old com­pa­ny that need­ed a lot of fix­ing, with min­i­mal fi­nanc­ing, no top tier board or sci­en­tif­ic founders.”

With Xon­toge­ny he can “work with peo­ple who want to work with me.” He can fo­cus on de­vel­op­ment, in­stead of the dis­trac­tions of man­ag­ing a larg­er com­pa­ny in the pub­lic eye.

“A lot of peo­ple love the spot­light,” he says. “I re­al­ly want to fo­cus on de­vel­op­ment. I feel I can beat the in­dus­try av­er­ages.”

Now he has the mon­ey to find out.

George Scangos (L) and Marianne De Backer

Pi­o­neer­ing biotech icon George Scan­gos hands in his re­tire­ment pa­pers — and this time it’s for re­al

George Scangos, one of the all-time great biotech CEOs, says the time has come to turn over the reins one last time.

The 74-year-old biotech legend spent close to three decades in a CEO post. The first was at Exelixis — which is still heavily focused on a drug Scangos advanced in the clinic. The second “retirement” was at Biogen, where he and his team were credited with a big turnaround with the now fading MS blockbuster Tecfidera. And the third comes at Vir, where he traded in his Big Biotech credentials for a marquee founder’s role back on the West Coast, hammering out a Covid-19 alliance with Hal Barron — then R&D chief at GSK — and breaking new ground on infectious diseases with some high-powered venture players.

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Jeanne Loring, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (Credit: Jamie Scott Lytle)

A stem cell pi­o­neer sent an ex­per­i­ment in­to space. Pa­tients are the next fron­tier

Last July, Jeanne Loring stood on a dirt road surrounded by Florida swampland and watched as a nearby SpaceX rocket blasted into the sky. The payload included a very personal belonging: cell clusters mimicking parts of her brain.

For more than two decades, Loring has been at the forefront of a stem cell field that always seems on the brink of becoming the next thing in medicine, but has been slow to lift off.

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In­vestor 'misalign­men­t' leads to tR­NA biotech's shut­ter­ing

A small biotech looking to carve a lane in the tRNA field has folded, an investor and a co-founder confirmed to Endpoints News.

Similar to Flagship’s Alltrna and other upstarts like Takeda-backed hC Bioscience, the now-shuttered Theonys was attempting to go after transfer RNA, seen as a potential Swiss Army knife in the broader RNA therapeutics space. The idea is that one tRNA drug could be used across a galaxy of disorders and diseases.

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FDA re­ports ini­tial 'no sig­nal' for stroke risk with Pfiz­er boost­ers, launch­es con­comi­tant flu shot study

The FDA hasn’t detected any potential safety signals, including for stroke, in people aged 65 years and older who have received Pfizer’s bivalent Covid booster, one senior official told members of the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) on Thursday.

The update comes as the FDA and CDC investigate a “preliminary signal” that may indicate an increased risk of ischemic stroke in older Americans who received Pfizer’s updated shot.

FDA cuts off use for As­traZeneca’s Covid-19 ther­a­py Evusheld

The FDA has stopped use of another drug as a result of the new coronavirus variants. On Thursday, the agency announced that AstraZeneca’s antibody combo Evusheld, which was an important prevention option for many immunocompromised people and others, is no longer authorized.

The FDA said it made its decision based on the fact that Evusheld works on fewer than 10% of circulating variants.

Evusheld was initially given emergency authorization at the end of 2021. However, as Omicron emerged, so did studies that showed Evusheld might not work against the dominant Omicron strain. In October, the FDA warned healthcare providers that Evusheld was useless against the Omicron subvariant BA.4.6. It followed that up with another announcement earlier this month that it did not think Evusheld would work against the latest Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5.

Elon Musk (GDA via AP Images)

Neu­ralink em­ploy­ees cite lay­offs at Elon Musk’s brain-com­put­er in­ter­face start­up

At least two Neuralink employees have posted to LinkedIn in recent days saying they’ve been laid off from Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface startup, which has received backlash for animal testing.

A former staffer working on preclinical study design and an ex-lab director working on assessing the safety of Neuralink’s implanted devices (prior to human testing) announced recently they’d been laid off, specifically using that terminology. Both had worked at the startup for at least two years.

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Ali Madani, Profluent founder and CEO

Proflu­ent de­buts to de­sign pro­teins with ma­chine learn­ing in bid to move past 'AI sprin­kled on top'

While OpenAI’s Microsoft-allied ChatGPT takes the world by storm, a fledgling startup in Berkeley, CA is debuting to take a similar language-learning model approach, but with the goal of designing new proteins.

Profluent, founded by a former Salesforce AI research leader, has secured $9 million to kick-start its work, with proceeds going toward building out an integrated wet lab and recruiting machine learning scientists and biologists. Insight Partners led the seed round. The investor base also includes Air Street Capital, AIX Ventures and Phoenix Venture Partners.

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Matthew Stober, newly-appointed Abzena CEO (Abzena)

Abzena lays off more than 60 em­ploy­ees in Cal­i­for­nia

Contract manufacturer Abzena has permanently laid off 66 employees at one of its San Diego sites, marking the latest in a string of layoffs spanning the biotech industry.

The layoffs took effect on Jan. 11 at the company’s 8810 Rehco Road site, according to a WARN notice filed with the Employment Development Department of California.

Abzena does have another location in the San Diego area, where the manufacturer invested $60 million and added 50,000 square feet in 2020. Endpoints News reached out to Abzena but has not received a response as of press time.

#JPM23: What's re­al­ly dri­ving the cost of health­care and drugs in 2023?

Executive Editor Drew Armstrong spoke with PhRMA CEO Steve Ubl, EmsanaRx CEO Greg Baker and ICER President Steve Pearson about how the debate over drug costs has changed (or not) in the last decade, the shifting payer landscape and why there seems to be so little movement on drug rebates. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Drew Armstrong:

So first of all, thank you to everybody for being here and for our panel for being here. Incredibly excited to have this discussion on the cost of healthcare and drugs and what’s driving that. We’re here with Steve Ubl, the head of PhRMA. Thank you so much. Steve Pearson from ICER, and Greg Baker from EmsanaRx. I want to start this conversation with a little bit of a personal reminiscence. So about almost 10 years exactly. I was a reporter back in my previous job and I was covering drug pricing and Gilead had just launched their hepatitis C drug and I was having a conversation with another Steve over at Express Scripts and he made some comments essentially about how they intended to launch a price war over hepatitis C therapies.

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