People, Startups, Venture

From big biopharma to biotech CEO, John Houston’s R&D journey highlights a fast-changing world

John Houston spent close to 30 years in the ranks of two big biopharma R&D organizations. There was a decade at GSK followed by 18 more years at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he built a resume around constructing their drug discovery technology base and was credited with a key role in developing a range of major franchise drugs like Opdivo and Yervoy.

Then about two years ago, instead of developing new drugs, he was charged with lending a hand at shutting down two big research sites in Seattle and Wallingford, CT, while BMS set its sights on a new R&D center in Cambridge.

And he found that he didn’t like the restructuring world so much.

“I decided it was not what I wanted to do, to continue to close sites and handle the transition,” Houston tells me. So he left Bristol-Myers in the summer of 2016, joining the migration out of the big company R&D world to see what else biopharma might have in store for him.

Early this year, that quest led to the CSO’s job at Arvinas in New Haven, where the team is working on new protein degradation tech originally developed in the lab of Yale’s Craig Crews. (“It was exactly the role I wanted.”) And this morning — following the departure of CEO Manny Litchman for Mustang last spring — Houston has been given the helm as a newly minted biotech CEO.

Houston’s transition highlights the booming opportunities of a fast-growing US biotech industry, which has proven to be siren song for a legion of experienced biopharma R&D execs who’ve grown disenchanted with their old roles, where restructuring is often the order of the day. Houston’s seen it all around New Haven, where new companies like Biohaven have sourced teams from Bristol-Myers’ discarded operations.

“The excitement of moving into a biotech, where you can get things done quicker and have an impact, is clearly an attraction,” says Houston. In a startup biotech, you’re not “weighted down by a decision-making bureaucracy. Also, you want to see new challenges, add value, and creating the setting gives you a huge possibility to do that.”

Houston’s world now is dominated by the 46 staffers at Arvinas who are pushing two lead drugs for androgen and estrogen receptor degradation for prostate and breast cancer from the preclinical effort into the clinic. They’re working on a pair of INDs — with the help of around 80 chemists spread out among WuXi and other Asian contract research groups — and looking to get into the clinic at the end of 2018.

Houston, who used to run neurosciences at Bristol-Myers, is also more than a little thrilled to be setting up a preclinical protein degradation program for tau, one of the key targets in the Alzheimer’s world.

Somewhere along the way now, Arvinas Chairman Tim Shannon — a general partner at Canaan — will look to see how best to arrange the next fundraising for the company, which he says is funded through Q2.

Arvinas is a venture-backed company, and venture-backed companies tend to follow a path where you concentrate on deals (Arvinas is partnered with a couple of the best: Genentech and Merck)  and consider the possibilities of an IPO or a buyout if the right offer comes along.

“The main focus is to grow the company to the point where it can be seen as a valuable medical producing organization,” says Houston.

And he couldn’t be happier.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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