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Ex-Shire exec Phil Vickers joins the migration to startups, taking the reins at an immuno-oncology biotech

A small immuno-oncology company in Toronto has attracted Phil Vickers, a big name in the global R&D scene, to take the reins as the startup’s new CEO.

Phil Vickers

You might’ve heard of Vickers when he was at Shire, where he led the pharma giant’s global R&D for seven years. When he started there, Vickers oversaw a handful of rare disease programs. By the time he left, he was heading up 40 programs in clinical development.

Vickers spent a big chunk his career in Big Pharma, working at Merck, Pfizer and Boehringer-Ingelheim before his gig at Shire. But now he’s heading to a tiny upstart in Toronto called Northern Biologics.

Vickers was introduced to the company through his friends at Versant Ventures, the VC firm that closed a $400 million fund earlier this year. Versant is an investor in Northern Biologics, and Vickers was considering joining the company’s board. In a meeting with the startup’s leadership team, Vickers started brainstorming how the company might address opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.

They decided to offer him the top job instead.

With Vickers’ background, he could likely have his pick of companies to lead, but he said he’s excited to work with a small company again.

“There’s an excitement and electricity about being at a smaller company,” Vickers says. “There’s a lot of innovation going on at small companies, where you start with a nugget of an idea and you’re able to rapidly move it forward. There’s minimal bureaucracy to slow it down, and there’s nowhere to hide so everyone has to play a role in moving the company forward.”

On the science side, Vickers is enthusiastic about Northern Biologics’ lead program, which the company has coined MSC-1. The asset is an anti-LIF antibody (LIF = leukemia inhibitory factor), which is gaining esteem as an emerging target in cancer immunology.

“It’s in cancer’s best interest to be protected from the body’s immune system, so tumors co-opt LIF to drive immunosuppression,” Vickers tells me. “LIF also seems to be involved with the self-renewal of cancer stem cells.”

Stefan Larson

LIF might be implicated in a large variety of cancer types, Vickers said, including ones with high unmet needs like pancreatic, ovarian and non-small cell lung cancer. A drug that targets a wide range could be quite impactful if it works, of course.

Vickers is taking the reins from Northern Biologics’ founding CEO Stefan Larson, who will remain on the company’s board and rejoin Versant as a venture partner.

Vickers will remain in Lexington, MA, where he has a home, and split a big chunk of his time between Northern Biologics’ HQ in Toronto and the Boston area.



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