Julian Adams became something of a local legend in the Boston/Cambridge area when he helped drive the development program for Velcade — a drug that helped launch the biotech careers of dozens of execs in VC and development — before leaving Millennium 14 years ago. And while he had plenty of ups and downs during his lengthy stint at Infinity, he remains one of the best known — and best connected — figures in one of biotech’s busiest hubs.
Today, Adams’ storied career takes a new twist as he takes the helm of Gamida Cell, a low-profile Israeli biotech with its lead program in late-stage development. He is moving from chairman of the board to CEO, in charge of establishing a credible and much higher profile US HQ for the company as it thinks through the final stages of a potential shift to commercialization, eyeing an IPO in a drive to raise some serious cash.
To hear Adams tell it, his main role is to put Gamida Cell on the biotech map, prepping for the launch of a therapeutic that has attracted the support of Novartis and a breakthrough therapy designation from the FDA — without actually earning much attention along the way. Former CEO Yael Margolin will stay on as president of the company in Israel, where its R&D operations will remain. And he’ll recruit a CFO in the US to join a New York-based CMO — Ronit Simantov — to create a beachhead in the world’s most important drug market as they go through the final play-by-play with the FDA in Washington, DC.
“We don’t have stage presence in the US,” Adams tells me. “I think that’s one of the limitations in being a Jerusalem-based company.”
In moving from chairman — a post he landed when he left Infinity after 13 years and became chief scientific officer at Clal, which backs Gamida Cell — to the CEO’s job, Adams is betting that he and a US-based executive team can make a critical difference.
“We definitely need to have a strong financial person to complement my strength in research and development,” says Adams, who will be followed by a head of commercial operations.
The CEO search was top of mind even when he joined the company, says Adams. But the candidate hunt led the company’s top backers back to him.
“Investors in the company turned to me and asked would I do it,” he says. “I thought about this for 5 seconds and said ‘yes.’”
Adams’ excitement is geared largely to the potential of the long-running development campaign for NiCord, a cell graft made from a concoction of stem cells, progenitor cells as well as dendritic cells which it hopes can be OK’d for use when the right bone marrow donor can’t be found for patients suffering from leukemia and lymphoma. Novartis, which once reportedly considered buying the company, has been a backer, alongside Shavit Capital, VMS Investment Group, the Israel Biotech Fund, Clal Biotechnology Industries and Israel HealthCare Ventures.
That group, though, won’t cut it for the “lug” of cash required to go all the way through Phase III, build out manufacturing and execute a planned market launch, if the cards turn right. For that Adams is considering an IPO, wooing investors with a pitch at the commercial potential of their lead therapy.
Adams isn’t providing any timeline on Phase III; recruitment hasn’t gone exactly as expected and needs more work. But once that is complete, he says, Gamida Cell will be 40 to 50 days from the end of data collection. They will have final Phase II data available at ASH. And that will set the stage for JPMorgan in San Francisco, when he plans to line up meetings with crossover investors and bankers at the big healthcare financing confab.
As good as Adams’ rep has been, he’s also acutely aware of the three big strike outs that occurred while he was running R&D at Infinity. The first two were clinical failures, setbacks which he terms “noble failures” for tackling hard targets like pancreatic cancer. The third setback, relatively weak results for duvelisib, spiked Infinity’s big-dollar partnership with AbbVie.
Adams, though, makes no apologies about duvelisib, now scooped up by Verastem. The commercial prospects may have dimmed, he says, but “that drug is going to get approved.”
The experience at Infinity taught him that you need to have staying power to make it in biotech, and that takes cash. He’s still getting an education about biotech, just as he was when he developed an HIV drug at a time he “couldn’t spell HIV.”
“I’m an R&D guy, with a strong focus on discovery and development; not a commercial guy,” Adams acknowledges. “But it’s not like I’m unable to learn new things. I plan on learning — and this is not hubris — but I’m fearless. I think I know how to learn.”
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