Fol­low­ing the ex­o­dus at Im­muno­core, Eliot Forster takes the reins at F-star — how long be­fore the crossover and an IPO?

LON­DON — Over the past 12 years, F-star has built up a rep for an­ti­body de­sign work that’s gar­nered the avid at­ten­tion of a line­up of both big and re­mark­able de­vel­op­ment part­ners. But aside from the deals it’s done, and the mile­stones it’s been rack­ing up, the Cam­bridge biotech nev­er raised much cash for its op­er­a­tions from in­vestors.

Em­ploy­ee #99, though, may just do some­thing about that.

This morn­ing Eliot Forster, the high-pro­file biotech ex­ec who re­cent­ly left the helm at Im­muno­core, will step up to the CEO’s job at F-star. He’s tak­ing the top job at a time the biotech is ad­vanc­ing to­ward its first clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment work on an in-house pipeline — putting the com­pa­ny at the cross­roads.

In an in­ter­view in Lon­don on Sun­day, I point­ed out that with the re­cent ap­point­ment of At­las part­ner Nes­san Berming­ham to the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man’s job at F-star and his own move, it seemed like the game plan would like­ly call for a siz­able crossover round and IPO. That’s a fi­nanc­ing piv­ot which he agreed seemed “ob­vi­ous and sen­si­ble” giv­en the com­pa­ny’s cash re­quire­ments to build the in-house pipeline, which is where the fo­cus is now.

“They need to go through that step that — if biotechs are lucky — they get to go through,” says Forster.

Just 5 months ago F-star be­gan an ear­ly-stage study of FS118, a bis­pe­cif­ic that tar­gets PD-L1 as well as LAG-3, un­der op­tion to Mer­ck KGaA. Forster now us­es it as an ex­am­ple of the kind of next-gen drug that can suc­ceed in the mar­ket­place, in­cor­po­rat­ing the PD-L1 check­point with an­oth­er tar­get, rather than work­ing on a com­bi­na­tion of two pricey drugs.

The plat­form tech re­volves around F-star’s abil­i­ty to add an anti­gen bind­ing site in the Fc re­gion of an an­ti­body, com­ing up with a bis­pe­cif­ic de­signed to re­main rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward to man­u­fac­ture. 

John Hau­ram

Un­der CEO John Hau­ram — who’ll be help­ing out now as a con­sul­tant as he ends a reg­u­lar com­mute from Copen­hagen to spend more time with the fam­i­ly — the biotech al­so signed deals with Ab­b­Vie and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb, though Bris­tol-My­ers re­cent­ly de­cid­ed to drop their col­lab­o­ra­tion. De­nali, though, has been pumped about the neu­ro­science pact they struck with F-star, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter run­ning through some late pre­clin­i­cal work on their drugs.

Forster has raised some eye-open­ing sums, most no­tably the whop­ping $320 mil­lion record-set­ting — for Eu­rope — round in 2015.

This is around the time that a biotech could, in Forster’s words, “fart in a bag and get 10 mil­lion for it.” 

Forster, though, abrupt­ly left his top job at the com­pa­ny last Feb­ru­ary, not long af­ter he told me that he was look­ing for an­oth­er mon­ster round of cash. And in short or­der, his whole ex­ec­u­tive team at Im­muno­core was swept away and re­placed.

Forster won’t com­ment on what hap­pened. But in dis­cus­sions with sev­er­al peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the talks in­side Im­muno­core, it’s ap­par­ent the biotech was hav­ing a hard time stick­ing with its high-end uni­corn val­u­a­tion. The pres­sure point over val­u­a­tion led to his de­par­ture and the ex­o­dus that fol­lowed, with a new team in to pick up the pieces.

That’s all be­hind Forster, though. F-star has some valu­able ven­ture re­la­tion­ships, and we’re in a time when clin­i­cal-stage I/O com­pa­nies can ex­pect a warm wel­come on the Nas­daq, the go-to spot for UK drug de­vel­op­ers these days.

F-star will now get a chance to join a se­lect group of top play­ers in the Gold­en Tri­an­gle who can ben­e­fit from the cur­rent fundrais­ing en­vi­ron­ment, with in­vestors on both sides of the At­lantic in­ter­est­ed in step­ping up. At a time when Brex­it is push­ing the UK to a break with the EU, the coun­try’s top biotechs are spend­ing more time look­ing to the mas­sive US mar­ket to the west. And F-star is no ex­cep­tion.


Im­age: Eliot Forster. JOHN CAR­ROLL, END­POINTS NEWS

Daphne Koller, Getty

Bris­tol My­er­s' Richard Har­g­reaves pays $70M to launch a neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion al­liance with a star play­er in the ma­chine learn­ing world

Bristol Myers Squibb is turning to one of the star upstarts in the machine learning world to go back to the drawing board and come up with the disease models needed to find drugs that can work against two of the toughest targets in the neuro world.

Daphne Koller’s well-funded insitro is getting $70 million in cash and near-term milestones to use their machine learning platform to create induced pluripotent stem cell-derived disease models for ALS and frontotemporal dementia.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks at the Rose Garden, May 26, 2020 (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

Eli Lil­ly lines up a block­buster deal for Covid-19 an­ti­body, right af­ter it failed a NI­AID tri­al

Two days after Eli Lilly conceded that its antibody bamlanivimab was a flop in hospitalized Covid-19 patients, the US government is preparing to make it a blockbuster.

The pharma giant reported early Wednesday that it struck a deal to supply the feds with 300,000 vials of the drug at a cost of $375 million — once it gets an EUA stamp from the FDA. And once that 2-month supply deal is done, the government has an option on another 650,000 doses on the same terms — which could potentially add another $812 million.

Patrick Soon-Shiong at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, Jan. 13, 2020 (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Af­ter falling be­hind the lead­ers, dissed by some ex­perts, biotech show­man Patrick Soon-Sh­iong fi­nal­ly gets his Covid-19 vac­cine ready for a tri­al. But can it live up to the hype?

In January, when dozens of scientists rushed to start making a vaccine for the then-novel coronavirus, they were joined by an unlikely compatriot: Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor most famous for making big, controversial promises on cancer research.

Soon-Shiong had spent the last 4 years on his “Cancer Moonshot,” but part of his project meant buying a small Seattle biotech that specialized in making common-cold vectors, called adenoviruses, to train the immune system. The billionaire had been using those vectors for oncology, but the company had also developed vaccine candidates for H1N1, Lassa fever and other viruses. When the outbreak began, he pivoted.

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Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks (Evan Vucci/AP Images)

A P val­ue of 0.38? NE­JM re­sults raise new ques­tions for Eli Lil­ly's vaunt­ed Covid an­ti­body

Generally, a P value of 0.38 means your drug failed and by a fair margin. Depending on the company, the compound and the trial, it might mean the end of the program. It could trigger layoffs.

For Eli Lilly, though, it was part of the key endpoint on a trial that landed them a $1.2 billion deal with the US government to supply up to nearly 1 million Covid-19 antibodies.

So what does one make of that? Was the endpoint not so important, as Lilly maintains? Or did the US government promise a princely sum for a pedestrian drug?

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Ar­cus and As­traZeneca part­ner on a high stakes an­ti-TIG­IT/PD-L1 PhI­II can­cer study, look­ing to im­prove on a stan­dard of care

For AstraZeneca, the PACIFIC trial in Stage III non-small cell lung cancer remains one of the big triumphs for AstraZeneca’s oncology R&D group. It not only made their PD-L1 Imfinzi a franchise player with a solid advance in a large niche of the lung cancer market, the study — which continues to offer data on the long-range efficacy of their drug — also helped salve the vicious sting of the failure of the CTLA-4 combo in the MYSTIC study.

No­var­tis buys a new gene ther­a­py for vi­sion loss, and this is one pre­clin­i­cal ven­ture that did­n't come cheap

Cyrus Mozayeni got excited when he began to explore the academic work of Ehud Isacoff and John G. Flannery at UC Berkeley.

Together, they were engaged in finding a gene therapy approach to pan-genotypic vision restoration in patients with photoreceptor-based blindness, potentially restoring the vision of a broad group of patients. And they did it by using a vector to deliver the genetic sequence for light sensing proteins.

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CMO Merdad Parsey (Gilead)

Gilead hits the brakes on a tri­fec­ta of mid- and late-stage stud­ies for their trou­bled fil­go­tinib pro­gram. It's up to the FDA now

Gilead $GILD execs haven’t decided exactly what to do with filgotinib in the wake of the slapdown at the FDA on their rheumatoid arthritis application, but they’re taking a time out for a slate of studies until they can gain some clarity from the agency. And without encouraging guidance, this drug could clearly be axed from the pipeline.

In their Q3 report out Wednesday afternoon, the company says researchers have “paused” a Phase III study for psoriatic arthritis along with a pair of Phase II trials for ankylosing spondylitis and uveitis. Late-stage studies for ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s are continuing, but you can see for yourself how big a hole this leaves in the inflammatory disease pipeline, with obvious implications if the company abandons filgo altogether.

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Noubar Afeyan, Flagship founder and CEO (Victor Boyko/Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Flag­ship launch­es Sen­da Bio­sciences with $88M in back­ing, look­ing to pi­o­neer the field of 'In­ter­sys­tems Bi­ol­o­gy'

Flagship Pioneering has a fresh company out this week, one that aims to lay the groundwork for a whole new discipline.

Senda Biosciences launched Wednesday with $88 million in Flagship cash. The goal? Gain insights into the molecular connections between people and coevolved nonhuman species like plants and bacteria, paving the way for “Intersystems Biology.”

Guillaume Pfefer has been tapped to run the show, a 25-year biotech veteran who comes from GSK after leading the development of the company’s shingles vaccine.

Jude Samulski, Marianne De Backer

Bay­er buys a biotech ‘race horse’ with a $4B deal — $2B in cash — aimed at go­ing big in­to gene ther­a­py

In the latest sign that Big Pharma wants a leading place in the push to develop a new generation of cell and gene therapies, Bayer is stepping up today with a $2 billion cash deal to buy out one of the fast-moving pioneers in the field, while adding up to $2 billion more in milestones if the new pharma subsidiary can deliver the goods.

As part of a continuing series of deals engineered by Bayer BD chief Marianne De Backer, the pharma player has snapped up Asklepios, more commonly referred to in more casual fashion as AskBio. And they are paying top dollar for a Research Triangle Park-based company that raised $225 million a little more than a year ago to back the brainchild of Jude Samulski, the gene therapy pioneer out of the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center.

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