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.

Mer­ck is tak­ing the ax to its US op­er­a­tions, cut­ting 500 jobs in its lat­est re­or­ga­ni­za­tion

Merck is cutting 500 jobs in its US sales and headquarters commercial teams in its latest effort to find new ways to streamline the operation.

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Alice Shaw, Lung Cancer Foundation of America

Top ALK ex­pert and can­cer drug re­searcher Al­ice Shaw bids adieu to acad­e­mia, hel­lo to No­var­tis

Jay Bradner has recruited a marquee oncology drug researcher into the ranks of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Alice Shaw is jumping from prestigious posts intertwined through Mass General, Harvard and Dana-Farber to take the lead of NIBR’s translational clinical oncology group.

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Hal Barron, GSK's president of R&D and CSO, speaks to Endpoints News founder and editor John Carroll in London at Endpoints' #UKBIO19 summit on October 8, 2019

[Video] Cel­e­brat­ing tri­al fail­ures, chang­ing the cul­ture and al­ly­ing with Cal­i­for­nia dream­ers: R&D chief Hal Bar­ron talks about a new era at GSK

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Hal Barron at Endpoints’ #UKBIO19 summit to discuss his views on R&D at GSK, a topic that has been central to his life since he took the top research post close to 2 years ago. During the conversation, Barron talked about changing the culture at GSK, a move that involves several new approaches — one of which involves celebrating their setbacks as they shift resources to the most promising programs in the pipeline. Barron also discussed his new alliances in the Bay Area — including his collaboration pact with Lyell, which we covered here — frankly assesses the pluses and minuses of the UK drug development scene, and talks about his plans for making GSK a much more effective drug developer.

This is one discussion you won’t want to miss. Insider and Enterprise subscribers can log-in to watch the video.

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Flu Virus (Source: CDC)

FDA ex­pands Xofluza ap­proval as Roche strug­gles to catch loom­ing flu mar­ket

As a potentially powerful flu season looms, so does a big test for Roche and its new flu drug, Xofluza. The Swiss giant just got a small boost in advance of that test as the FDA expanded Xofluza’s indication to include patients at high risk of developing flu-related complications.

Xofluza (baloxavir marboxil) was approved last October in the US, the first landmark flu drug approval in 20 years and a much-needed green light for a company that had watched its leading flu drug Tamiflu get eaten alive by generics. Like its predecessor, the pill offered a reduction in flu symptoms but not a cure.

EMA backs sev­en ther­a­pies, in­clud­ing Mer­ck­'s Ebo­la vac­cine

The first-ever Ebola vaccine is on the precipice of approval after the European Medicine’s Agency (EMA) backed the Merck product in this week’s roster of recommendations.

The drugmaker $MRK began developing the vaccine, christened Ervebo, during the West African outbreak that occurred between 2014 and 2016, killing more than 11,000.

The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has shown case fatality rates of approximately 67%, the agency estimated. Earlier this year, the WHO declared the outbreak — which so far has infected more than 3,000 people — a public health emergency of international concern.

Ronald Herb­st fol­lows Med­Im­mune ex­o­dus to Pyx­is CSO post; Jeff God­dard to suc­ceed CEO of AIT Bio­science

→ The outflow of top execs from MedImmune continues to fill the leadership ranks of smaller biotechs. The latest to take off is Ronald Herbst, the head of oncology research, who’s assuming the CSO post at Pyxis Oncology.  

Herbst was part of the old MedImmune organization AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot restructured earlier this year, reorganizing the company and eliminating the storied subsidiary as a separate organization.

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Med­ical an­i­ma­tion: Mak­ing it eas­i­er for the site and the pa­tient to un­der­stand

Medical animation has in recent years become an increasingly important tool for conveying niche information to a varied audience, particularly to those audiences without expertise in the specialist area. Science programmes today, for example, have moved from the piece-to-camera of the university professor explaining how a complex disease mechanism works, to actually showing the viewer first-hand what it might look like to shrink ourselves down to the size of an ant’s foot, and travel inside the human body to witness these processes in action. Effectively communicating a complex disease pathophysiology, or the novel mechanism of action of a new drug, can be complex. This is especially difficult when the audience domain knowledge is limited or non-existent. Medical animation can help with this communication challenge in several ways.
Improved accessibility to visualisation
Visualisation is a core component of our ability to understand a concept. Ask 10 people to visualise an apple, and each will come up with a slightly different image, some apples smaller than others, some more round, some with bites taken. Acceptable, you say, we can move on to the next part of the story. Now ask 10 people to visualise how HIV’s capsid protein gets arranged into the hexamers and pentamers that form the viral capsid that holds HIV’s genetic material. This request may pose a challenge even to someone with some virology knowledge, and it is that inability to effectively visualise what is going on that holds us back from fully understanding the rest of the story. So how does medical animation help us to overcome this visualisation challenge?

UP­DAT­ED: J&J's Xarel­to, Amar­in's Vas­cepa are cost-ef­fec­tive, not bud­get friend­ly — ICER

ICER, an increasingly influential cost-effectiveness watchdog in the United States, has concluded in its review of treatments for cardiovascular disease that while the cost of J&J’s Xarelto and Amarin’s Vascepa meet its benchmark for value pricing — the two treatments will not likely treat as many patients as hoped without surpassing the annual budget threshold calculated by ICER for each therapy.

Mi­rati preps its first look at their KRAS G12C con­tender, and they have to clear a high bar for suc­cess

If you’re a big KRAS G12C fan, mark your calendars for October 28 at 4:20 pm EDT.

That’s when Mirati $MRTX will unveil its first peek at the early clinical data available on MRTX849 in presentations at the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in Boston.

Mirati has been experiencing the full effect of a rival’s initial success at targeting the G12C pocket found on KRAS, offering the biotech some support on the concept they’re after — and biotech fans a race to the top. Amgen made a big splash with its first positive snapshot on lung cancer, but deflated sky-high expectations as it proved harder to find similar benefits in other types of cancers.

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