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.

The Big Phar­ma dis­card pile; Lay­offs all around while some biotechs bid farewell; New Roche CEO as­sem­bles top team; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

With earnings seasons in full swing, we’ve listened in on all the calls so you don’t have to. But news is popping up from all corners, so make sure you check out our other updates, too.

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Raymond Stevens, Structure Therapeutics CEO

Be­hind Fri­day's $161M IPO: A star sci­en­tist, GPCR drug dis­cov­ery and a plan to chal­lenge phar­ma in di­a­betes

What does it take to pull off a $161 million biotech IPO these days?

In Structure Therapeutics’ case, it means having a star scientist co-founder paired with the computational drug discovery company Schrödinger, $198 million in private funding from blue-chip investors, almost six years of research work on G protein-coupled receptors and a slate of oral, small-molecule drugs, with an eye on the huge and growing diabetes and weight-loss market.

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Simba Gill, Evelo Biosciences CEO

Sim­ba Gill stay­ing on at Evelo to weath­er lay­offs and a PhII fail

Simba Gill will be staying put as CEO of Evelo Biosciences for now.

Gill announced last year that he would be leaving the head position at Evelo to take on the role of executive partner at Flagship Pioneering. He was aiming to stay on until a successor was selected, but there’s a new course of action in the wake of a Phase II miss and a reduced headcount.

“I want to emphasize that I remain personally committed to Evelo and staying on to lead the organization. I continue to believe that Evelo is a remarkable opportunity in terms of the science, the platform, the type of products that we’re able to produce, and most importantly, the potential of millions of patients suffering from all stages of inflammatory disease,” Gill said on a conference call.

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Laurent Audoly, former Parthenon CEO

Parthenon Ther­a­peu­tics CEO ex­its weeks af­ter co-founder leaves

Parthenon Therapeutics’ CEO and co-founder Laurent Audoly is no longer steering the ship of the cancer biotech, Endpoints News has learned.

Audoly’s departure comes just weeks after co-founder and chief business and operating officer Olga Granaturova left to take on the same posts at Normunity, another privately-held immunotherapy startup. CSO Tamas Oravecz also traded in his CSO hat for the same role at Simcere last August.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Francis Chung/E&E News/Politico via AP Images)

In­fla­tion re­bates in­com­ing: Wyden calls on CMS to move quick­ly as No­var­tis CEO pledges re­ver­sal

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) this week sent a letter to the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services seeking an update on how and when new inflation-linked rebates will take effect for drugs that see major price spikes.

The newly signed Inflation Reduction Act requires manufacturers to pay a rebate to Medicare when they increase drug prices faster than the rate of inflation.

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Trodelvy notch­es a win in most com­mon form of breast can­cer

Following a promise last year to go “big and fast in breast cancer,” Gilead has secured a win for Trodelvy in the most common form.

The drug was approved to treat HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer patients who’ve already received endocrine-based therapy and at least two other systemic therapies for metastatic cancer, Gilead announced on Friday.

Trodelvy won its first indication in metastatic triple-negative breast cancer back in 2020, and has since added urothelial cancer to the list. HR-positive HER2-negative breast cancer accounts for roughly 70% of new breast cancer cases worldwide per year, according to senior VP of oncology clinical development Bill Grossman, and many patients develop resistance to endocrine-based therapies or worsen on chemotherapy.

John Roberts, exiting Vyant Bio CEO

Neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive biotech Vyant warns of po­ten­tial wind-down

The CEO and chief scientific officer of Vyant Bio are out the door as the little-known but publicly-listed neurodegenerative biotech searches for an exit or, if all else fails, a wind-down.

The soul-searching bookends a winding journey for the biotech, which rebranded and transitioned from diagnostics company Cancer Genetics in 2021 after a merger with StemoniX. That came after a failed merger attempt with NovellusDx (now Fore Biotherapeutics) in 2018. In the last few years, units have been sold off and the stock price $VYNT has plummeted from the $30 range to penny stock territory.

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Medicago's vaccine greenhouse (Medicago via YouTube)

Cana­di­an plant-based vac­cine de­vel­op­er Med­ica­go shut­ters months af­ter lay­offs

Plant-based Covid-19 vaccine developer Medicago shut down this week with little fanfare. And its two subsidiaries, Medicago R&D and Medicago USA, are also closing their doors, according to a company news release.

The lone shareholder left standing, Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical Group, “has determined not to make further investments in Medicago and to proceed with an orderly wind-up of its business and operations in Canada and in the United States.”

Af­ter 13 years, Ramy Mah­moud steps in­to CEO seat at Opti­nose; Ru­pert Vessey set to ex­it Bris­tol My­ers in Ju­ly

After 13 years as president and COO at Optinose, Ramy Mahmoud has stepped into a new role as its CEO. He is taking the place of Peter Miller, who stepped down earlier this week, though Miller is still staying with the company as a consultant.

In 2010, the two business partners joined Optinose to take it in a new direction, transforming it from a delivery platform to product company. They previously worked together at Johnson & Johnson, when Miller was president at Janssen and Mahmoud headed medical affairs. Miller said after he learned about Optinose, “I did what I always do, which is find people smarter than me to talk with about the idea. And the first person I called was Ramy … and I said, ‘Hey, Ramy, what do you think of this technology?’”

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