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

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.

Fangliang Zhang, AP Images

UP­DAT­ED: Leg­end fetch­es $424 mil­lion, emerges as biggest win­ner yet in pan­dem­ic IPO boom as shares soar

Amid a flurry of splashy pandemic IPOs, a J&J-partnered Chinese biotech has emerged with one of the largest public raises in biotech history.

Legend Biotech, the Nanjing-based CAR-T developer, has raised $424 million on NASDAQ. The biotech had originally filed for a still-hefty $350 million, based on a range of $18-$20, but managed to fetch $23 per share, allowing them to well-eclipse the massive raises from companies like Allogene, Juno, Galapagos, though they’ll still fall a few dollars short of Moderna’s record-setting $600 million raise from 2018.

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As it hap­pened: A bid­ding war for an an­tibi­ot­ic mak­er in a mar­ket that has rav­aged its peers

In a bewildering twist to the long-suffering market for antibiotics — there has actually been a bidding war for an antibiotic company: Tetraphase.

It all started back in March, when the maker of Xerava (an FDA approved therapy for complicated intra-abdominal infections) said it had received an offer from AcelRx for an all-stock deal valued at $14.4 million.

The offer was well-timed. Xerava was approved in 2018, four years after Tetraphase posted its first batch of pivotal trial data, and sales were nowhere near where they needed to be in order for the company to keep its head above water.

Is a pow­er­house Mer­ck team prepar­ing to leap past Roche — and leave Gilead and Bris­tol My­ers be­hind — in the race to TIG­IT dom­i­na­tion?

Roche caused quite a stir at ASCO with its first look at some positive — but not so impressive — data for their combination of Tecentriq with their anti-TIGIT drug tiragolumab. But some analysts believe that Merck is positioned to make a bid — soon — for the lead in the race to a second-wave combo immuno-oncology approach with its own ambitious early-stage program tied to a dominant Keytruda.

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Leen Kawas, Athira CEO (Athira)

Can a small biotech suc­cess­ful­ly tack­le an Ever­est climb like Alzheimer’s? Athi­ra has $85M and some in­flu­en­tial back­ers ready to give it a shot

There haven’t been a lot of big venture rounds for biotech companies looking to run a Phase II study in Alzheimer’s.

The field has been a disaster over the past decade. Amyloid didn’t pan out as a target — going down in a litany of Phase III failures — and is now making its last stand at Biogen. Tau is a comer, but when you look around and all you see is destruction, the idea of backing a startup trying to find complex cocktails to swing the course of this devilishly complicated memory-wasting disease would daunt the pluckiest investors.

GSK presents case to ex­pand use of its lu­pus drug in pa­tients with kid­ney dis­ease, but the field is evolv­ing. How long will the mo­nop­oly last?

In 2011, GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta became the first biologic to win approval for lupus patients. Nine years on, the British drugmaker has unveiled detailed positive results from a study testing the drug in lupus patients with associated kidney disease — a post-marketing requirement from the initial FDA approval.

Lupus is a drug developer’s nightmare. In the last six decades, there has been just one FDA approval (Benlysta), with the field resembling a graveyard in recent years with a string of failures including UCB and Biogen’s late-stage flop, as well as defeats in Xencor and Sanofi’s programs. One of the main reasons the success has eluded researchers is because lupus, akin to cancer, is not just one disease — it really is a disease of many diseases, noted Al Roy, executive director of Lupus Clinical Investigators Network, an initiative of New York-based Lupus Research Alliance that claims it is the world’s leading private funder of lupus research, in an interview.

Drug man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant Lon­za taps Roche/phar­ma ‘rein­ven­tion’ vet as its new CEO

Lonza chairman Albert Baehny took his time headhunting a new CEO for the company, making it absolutely clear he wanted a Big Pharma or biotech CEO with a good long track record in the business for the top spot. In the end, he went with the gold standard, turning to Roche’s ranks to recruit Pierre-Alain Ruffieux for the job.

Ruffieux, a member of the pharma leadership team at Roche, spent close to 5 years at the company. But like a small army of manufacturing execs, he gained much of his experience at the other Big Pharma in Basel, remaining at Novartis for 12 years before expanding his horizons.

Covid-19 roundup: Ab­b­Vie jumps in­to Covid-19 an­ti­body hunt; As­traZeneca shoots for 2B dos­es of Ox­ford vac­cine — with $750M from CEPI, Gavi

Another Big Pharma is entering the Covid-19 antibody hunt.

AbbVie has announced a collaboration with the Netherlands’ Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center and the Chinese-Dutch biotech Harbour Biomed to develop a neutralizing antibody that can treat Covid-19. The antibody, called 47D11, was discovered by AbbVie’s three partners, and AbbVie will support early preclinical work, while preparing for later preclinical and clinical development. Researchers described the antibody in Nature Communications last month.

President Donald Trump (left) and Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed (Alex Brandon, AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: White House names fi­nal­ists for Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed — with 5 ex­pect­ed names and one no­table omis­sion

A month after word first broke of the Trump Administration’s plan to rapidly accelerate the development and production of a Covid-19 vaccine, the White House has selected the five vaccine candidates they consider most likely to succeed, The New York Times reported.

Most of the names in the plan, known as Operation Warp Speed, will come as little surprise to those who have watched the last four months of vaccine developments: Moderna, which was the first vaccine to reach humans and is now the furthest along of any US effort; J&J, which has not gone into trials but received around $500 million in funding from BARDA earlier this year; the joint AstraZeneca-Oxford venture which was granted $1.2 billion from BARDA two weeks ago; Pfizer, which has been working with the mRNA biotech BioNTech; and Merck, which just entered the race and expects to put their two vaccine candidates into humans later this year.

Pfiz­er’s Doug Gior­dano has $500M — and some ad­vice — to of­fer a cer­tain breed of 'break­through' biotech

So let’s say you’re running a cutting-edge, clinical-stage biotech, probably public, but not necessarily so, which could see some big advantages teaming up with some marquee researchers, picking up say $50 million to $75 million dollars in a non-threatening minority equity investment that could take you to the next level.

Doug Giordano might have some thoughts on how that could work out.

The SVP of business development at the pharma giant has helped forge a new fund called the Pfizer Breakthrough Growth Initiative. And he has $500 million of Pfizer’s money to put behind 7 to 10 — or so — biotech stocks that fit that general description.

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