Fresh out of the bluebird bio oncology split, Joanne Smith-Farrell flies the coop to Be Bio and its B cell platform
Stung by setbacks and a stagnant pipeline, bluebird bio, the once-darling of gene therapy biotech, made the tough call to sever its rare disease and oncology units earlier this year. One of the business leads on bluebird’s oncology side has now popped up at a newly launched B cell player — and she’s taking her former employer’s “pioneering” example to heart.
Joanne Smith-Farrell, formerly bluebird’s chief operating officer and head of the oncology business unit, is now CEO at Be Biopharma, an early-stage biotech targeting engineered B cells for therapeutic use. Smith-Farrell is joined on the team by CSO Rick Morgan, another bluebird vet who was most recently senior VP of immunogenetics at Editas.
Taking the lead at Be Bio represents a step into the CEO seat for the first time for Smith-Farrell, who cut her teeth studying biomedical engineering in Bob Langer’s famed lab at MIT before making the jump to industry. She’s both a Pfizer and Merck veteran and joined bluebird in March 2017 to head the oncology franchise. The most advanced candidate there is multiple myeloma candidate ide-cel, a Bristol Myers Squibb-partnered CAR-T that faces an FDA review this year.
In her telling, Smith-Farrell was “at the heart” of deliberations over spinning off bluebird’s oncology unit into an as-yet-unnamed business led by CEO Nick Leschly. Meanwhile, the remaining gene therapy assets, including gene therapy Zynteglo and candidates in beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease, will keep the bluebird moniker. Despite the tectonic shift in the business model after a disappointing few years, Smith-Farrell said the spinoff “was not the reason” she chose to depart.
“It was very opportunistic,” Smith-Farrell told Endpoints News. “This (opportunity) came across, and it’s very hard to see something with this kind of potential for impact. It’s rare. The opportunity to come out and be a CEO … feels like a great next step.”
Meanwhile, Smith-Farrell looked back at the bluebird’s decision to split and called it “the right decision” at the time.
“I have a lot of confidence in the bluebird team being able to do what they need to do going forward,” she said.
As part of a rapid expansion taking Be Bio from just two employees at the end of 2020 to about 20 currently on staff, Smith-Farrell said her first orders of business are building a team that can model the sort of “pioneering” work she became familiar with at bluebird.
Meanwhile, Morgan will take over a B cell therapeutic platform with a lot of promise but not much to show so early into launch. His first focus, he said, will also be refining the vision for the platform’s potential and building a team that can successfully scale the pipeline.
“With the underlying technology, where do you point the applications?” he said. “We’re not there yet in terms of saying what the first indications will be, but because the platform lends itself to diverse indications, we will build a pipeline that has some breadth to it and a little more versatility than you would see at other cell therapy companies.”
Be Bio launched back in October with a $52 million debut round co-led by Atlas Ventures and RA Capital Management. The biotech hopes to re-engineer B cells as a novel therapeutic modality that can skip past the severe side effects of T cell and NK cell therapies and can also be produced allogeneically.