Ex-Bio­gen ex­ec Steve Holtz­man hears the call of Third Rock’s am­bi­tious Deci­bel

Steve Holtz­man is one of the best con­nect­ed biotech ex­ecs in the Boston/Cam­bridge hub. He and George Scan­gos got to­geth­er and wooed Doug Williams in­to Bio­gen as the turn­around team’s R&D chief, with Holtz­man head­ing up cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment. And long be­fore then, back in the mid-90s, he be­came a close col­league with Bob Tep­per, Mark Levin, Kevin Starr – the founders of Third Rock — and John Maraganore, all ex­ecs at Mil­len­ni­um, prob­a­bly the biggest sin­gle biotech ex­ec­u­tive mill in the big and rapid­ly ex­pand­ing hub city.

Steven Holtz­man, CEO Deci­bel Ther­a­peu­tics

Now, af­ter “re­tir­ing” from Bio­gen last fall, Holtz­man — who was the found­ing CEO at In­fin­i­ty Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals — is fol­low­ing a trail that Doug Williams took last fall, jump­ing back to the helm of a biotech start­up and be­gin­ning the process of turn­ing it in­to a promi­nent new R&D or­ga­ni­za­tion, this time fo­cused on new drugs for hear­ing loss.

In part, this was his 24-year-old son’s idea. His mo­ti­vat­ing com­ment:

“Dad, you’re ap­proach­ing the 5th an­niver­sary of your 3-year Bio­gen plan, what are you go­ing to do next?”

What’s next turned out to be Deci­bel Ther­a­peu­tics, a re­cent start­up large­ly fi­nanced by his old friends and col­leagues at Third Rock, manned by some of those Mil­len­ni­um ex­ecs he teamed with more than 20 years ago.

Deci­bel got start­ed in style with a whop­ping $52 mil­lion ven­ture round last Oc­to­ber. And Holtz­man is think­ing big about its fu­ture.

To­day, Deci­bel is a com­pa­ny with a fair­ly stan­dard, start­up staff of 20. By the end of next year, says Holtz­man, it should be near­ing 100. And among his first tasks is flesh­ing out Deci­bel’s ex­ec­u­tive team.

“Not all mon­ey is green,” says Holtz­man, you need tra­di­tion­al VCs, crossovers and oth­ers “who share your vi­sion, as op­posed to look­ing for a quick ex­it.” He’s sat­is­fied that Third Rock has his back on that score.

“The idea of build­ing the 1,051st dis­cov­ery com­pa­ny didn’t in­ter­est me at this point,” says Holtz­man.

Deci­bel, though, was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. In­stead of a biotech fo­cused on a pure un­met med­ical need, he was drawn in by the chance of de­vel­op­ing new ther­a­pies that could ad­dress a range of trig­gers for hear­ing loss, from the nar­row­ly de­fined pa­tient groups whose hear­ing loss can be trig­gered by spe­cif­ic drugs, to hear­ing loss due to an ex­po­sure to loud nois­es, or the sim­ple wear and tear of the years. He counts him­self in that last group, and a sis­ter suf­fer­ing from a pro­found con­gen­i­tal hear­ing loss has helped sen­si­tive him to the rest of the field.

With Deci­bel, the peo­ple were right, the mon­ey was right and the sci­ence was right, says Holtz­man. In this case, the biotech is pur­su­ing the role that neu­rotrophins play in restor­ing synaps­es and re­pair­ing hear­ing, with three key sci­en­tif­ic founders: Charles Liber­man at Har­vard Med­ical School, Gabriel Cor­fas at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, Scripps’ Ul­rich Müller, and Al­bert Edge from Mass­a­chu­setts Eye and Ear.

The goal now: “Giv­en that we’re right at the be­gin­ning of the whole un­fold­ing sto­ry of hear­ing ther­a­peu­tics, I don’t see why we can’t be the world’s lead­ing hear­ing ther­a­peu­tics com­pa­ny.”

It’s all ahead.

Norbert Bischofberger. Kronos

Backed by some of the biggest names in biotech, Nor­bert Bischof­berg­er gets his megaround for plat­form tech out of MIT

A little over a year ago when I reported on Norbert Bischofberger’s jump from the CSO job at giant Gilead to a tiny upstart called Kronos, I noted that with his connections in biotech finance, that $18 million launch round he was starting off with could just as easily have been $100 million or more.

With his first anniversary now behind him, Bischofberger has that mega-round in the bank.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.

Seer adds ex-FDA chief Mark Mc­Clel­lan to the board; Her­cules Cap­i­tal makes it of­fi­cial for new CEO Scott Bluestein

→ On the same day it announced a $17.5 million Series C, life sciences and health data company Seer unveiled that it had lured former FDA commissioner and ex-CMS administrator Mark McClellan on to its board. “Mark’s deep understanding of the health care ecosystem and visionary insights on policy reform will be crucial in informing our thinking as we work to bring our liquid biopsy and life sciences products to market,” said Seer chief and founder Omid Farokhzad in a statement.

Daniel O'Day

No­var­tis hands off 3 pre­clin­i­cal pro­grams to the an­tivi­ral R&D mas­ters at Gilead

Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day’s new task hunting up a CSO for the company isn’t stopping the industry’s dominant antiviral player from doing pipeline deals.

The big biotech today snapped up 3 preclinical antiviral programs from pharma giant Novartis, with drugs promising to treat human rhinovirus, influenza and herpes viruses. We don’t know what the upfront is, but the back end has $291 million in milestones baked in.

Vas Narasimhan, AP Images

On a hot streak, No­var­tis ex­ecs run the odds on their two most im­por­tant PhI­II read­outs. Which is 0.01% more like­ly to suc­ceed?

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan is living in the sweet spot right now.

The numbers are running a bit better than expected, the pipeline — which he assembled as development chief — is performing and the stock popped more than 4% on Thursday as the executive team ran through their assessment of Q2 performance.

Year-to-date the stock is up 28%, so the investors will be beaming. Anyone looking for chinks in their armor — and there are plenty giving it a shot — right now focus on payer acceptance of their $2.1 million gene therapy Zolgensma, where it’s early days. And CAR-T continues to underperform, but Novartis doesn’t appear to be suffering from it.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, not much. But Tim Anderson at Wolfe pressed Narasimhan and his development chief John Tsai to pick which of two looming Phase III readouts with blockbuster implication had the better odds of success.

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On a glob­al romp, Boehringer BD team picks up its third R&D al­liance for Ju­ly — this time fo­cused on IPF with $50M up­front

Boehringer Ingelheim’s BD team is on a global deal spree. The German pharma company just wrapped its third deal in 3 weeks, going back to Korea for its latest pipeline pact — this time focused on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

They’re handing over $50 million to get their hands on BBT-877, an ATX inhibitor from Korea’s Bridge Biotherapeutics that was on display at a science conference in Dallas recently. There’s not a whole lot of data to evaluate the prospects here.

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Servi­er scoots out of an­oth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Macro­Gen­ics, writ­ing off their $40M

Servier is walking out on a partnership with MacroGenics $MGNX — for the second time.

After the market closed on Wednesday MacroGenics put out word that Servier is severing a deal — inked close to 7 years ago — to collaborate on the development of flotetuzumab and other Dual-Affinity Re-Targeting (DART) drugs in its pipeline.

MacroGenics CEO Scott Koenig shrugged off the departure of Servier, which paid $20 million to kick off the alliance and $20 million to option flotetuzumab — putting a heavily back-ended $1 billion-plus in additional biobuck money on the table for the anti-CD123/CD3 bispecific and its companion therapies.