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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


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