Christopher Austin

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.

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.

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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Sushil Patel, Replimune

Ex­clu­sive: Genen­tech's for­mer Tecen­triq 'CEO' jumps ship to head up com­mer­cial at an on­colyt­ic virus play­er

Genentech has long been a headhunter’s paradise with biotechs shopping for top execs with premium résumés, so it’s not unusual to see some long-time employees jumping ship. Now, one of the commercial leads on the company’s oncology portfolio is leaving after a 20-year stint to try his hand at a tiny oncolytic virus biotech.

Sushil Patel, Genentech’s former global oncology franchise head for lung and skin cancer and rare/agnostic tumor types, will leave his post at the world’s first biotech to head commercial at a much smaller operation in Replimune, which is using oncolytic viruses to hunt solid tumors.

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Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”

Kåre Schultz, Teva CEO (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Te­va CEO Kåre Schultz sees a 35% raise de­spite the com­pa­ny's con­tin­ued le­gal woes

Amid a year where revenues were mostly flat but lawsuits continued piling up, Teva CEO Kåre Schultz saw himself getting a raise.

In shareholder documents filed to the SEC on Wednesday, Teva revealed its executive compensation packages for 2020. Though his salary remained the same as each of the last two years, Schultz’s stock awards increased by about $4 million from 2019, accounting for almost all of the additional pay he received in his $15.7 million package.