People, Startups

Genentech I/O chief Dan Chen heads to an upstart biotech looking to create a landmark advance on antibodies

One of the top scientific leaders behind the emergence of PD-1/L1 checkpoint inhibitors has left Genentech to take the chief medical officer’s job at a low-profile biotech upstart looking to make antibody history.

Dan Chen, who led the development of Tecentriq from start to post-market stardom, has taken the CMO’s job at IgM Biosciences in Mountain View, CA.

I couldn’t find much about them. No venture rounds or high-profile endorsements. But the website includes some lofty claims about their goal to revamp the way antibodies are developed, building on a blueprint that can significantly increase the ability of an antibody to bind with multiple domains using a much more complex IgM structure, rather than the IgGs that dominate the industry.

Chen wasn’t just in charge of the Tecentriq program, which Roche devoutly believes is a blockbuster in the making, he also helped guide a series of alliances with key antibody developers around the world. That added experience that could come in handy on his new job.

Chen is joining another Genentech vet, Bruce Heyt, who serves as chief scientific officer at IgM.

Chen told me in an interview Thursday that when he first started working on Tecentriq, he was a team of 1. And after watching the clinical development team alone expand into the hundreds of staffers at Genentech over the years, he’s back at an N of 1, ready to start building a new team.

Once again, he is looking to make some biotech history.

These IgM projects he’s started work on now are “hard to make, a lot more complicated than IgG (with two binding domains),” he says. “But after 8 years they’ve solved the manufacturing problems.”

“IgMs are sort of like Velcro,” he explains, capable of making multiple weak domains into one strong bond — like Velcro. And the same tech platform has multiple applications as you work on agonists, what Chen calls “enhanced super-agonists.”

Like a lot of top developers in the hottest field in oncology, Chen says he was treated to a long lineup of queries about new jobs over the years. But he passed on all of them, until IgM Bio called.

His first response when he got a good look: “Wow, Genentech should have done this. They’re engineering around a naturally occurring antibody format.” 

“The thing that really hooked me was the longterm future,” says Chen. After all the work aimed at scouring the human genome for the right targets for disease over the last 20 years, he adds, the time has come to shift focus to using “them in a more complex way than we ever have before….With an IgM molecule, you have a lot more room to play.”

And it’s in no way limited to immuno-oncology or oncology in general.

They built the company with private financing, says the scientist, which allowed the tiny biotech to remain in stealth mode until just a year or two ago as they patiently worked out their platform technology.

Chen can certainly distinguish one good antibody approach from another. And William Strohl, who once led early development at J&J’s research group, is also joining the board, offering another marquee thumbs-up for what they’re trying to do.

Fred Schwarzer, the CEO of IGM Biosciences, hit that theme hard in their statement today. He noted:

Dan is widely regarded as a global leader in immuno-oncology, and he oversaw some of the most important R&D in oncology over the last decade while at Genentech/Roche, making his decision to join IGM a strong endorsement of the potential of our technology and our emerging pipeline. Bill is widely regarded as a global thought leader in antibody engineering and novel antibody development, and we look forward to his contributions as a member of our Board of Directors.

Image: Daniel Chen speaks to Ira Mellman, Genentech Vice President of Cancer Immunology. Roche

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

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