Christopher Austin makes his return to industry, jumping ship from NIH over to CEO-partner role at Flagship
Flagship Pioneering has plucked its latest hire straight from the ranks of the NIH.
After nearly two decades at the NIH and almost 10 years as founding director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Christopher Austin is packing his bags for Cambridge, MA. There he’ll become Flagship’s newest CEO-partner — an esteemed role that the VC has been testing for the last year or so.
“Chris has been an innovator, a collaborator, a problem solver, and a challenger of the status quo,” NIH director Francis Collins said in a statement. “These characteristics have been crucial to his work in overcoming long-standing scientific and operational issues that hamper the process of turning promising biomedical advances into new diagnostics and health interventions.”
Austin graduated with a degree in biology from Princeton in 1982 then studied brain stem-cell development while pursuing his MD at Harvard Medical School. After completing his clinical training in internal medicine and neurology at world-renowned Massachusetts General Hospital, he practiced primary care in rural Alaska and Swaziland in Africa.
“I went to Kotzebue, Alaska, about 100 miles north of Nome, in the middle of winter, where the hospital was responsible for an enormous area, with villages of 50 or so people living 200 miles apart from each other,” Austin — who’s also known to sing opera — told Princeton’s Alumni Weekly. “Later, I spent time at a 30-bed hospital in rural Swaziland where patients unable to walk were often pushed to the hospital in a wheelbarrow, and there was only one doctor on duty.”
A stint at Merck followed, where Austin directed programs on genome-based discovery of new targets and drugs, with a particular focus on schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
In 2002, Austin was hired as a senior advisor at National Human Genome Research Institute’s Center for Translational Therapeutics. And in 2012, he became NCATS’ first permanent director. Since then, he’s led the center’s pursuit of speedier drug development, using new platforms like the “tissue chip,” which was developed as a better way of screening for safety.
“His drive to improve the translational process has been fueled by his experience as a geneticist, drug developer, neuroscientist, and medical doctor, when treatments couldn’t come soon enough for his patients who needed them,” Collins wrote.
The NIH is tapping NCATS deputy director Joni Rutter, who formerly helmed the neuroscience and behavior division of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), to take Austin’s place as acting director.
We’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Christopher Austin to Flagship Pioneering as CEO-Partner and the newest member of our senior leadership team. We congratulate him on his time at NCATS over the past decade to make incredible strides in #TranslationalScience. https://t.co/jEpAo33HPC
— Flagship Pioneering (@FlagshipPioneer) March 18, 2021
Flagship hired Fabrice Chouraqui as its first CEO-partner last May, former president of Novartis’ US pharmaceuticals business. Other hires include Tuyen Ong, Biogen’s former senior VP and head of their ophthalmology franchise; Guillaume Pfefer, who was previously SVP and global vaccine leader for Shingrix, GlaxoSmithKline’s blockbuster vaccine for the prevention of shingles; and ex-Vividion chief Diego Miralles.
Comparing Flagship to the “Dream Team in the Olympics of ‘92” — which went down in history as one of the best sports teams ever assembled — Miralles described the new gig as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” upon being hired last month.