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

Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors. 

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

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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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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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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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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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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