Har­vard biotech wiz Greg Ver­dine grabs a $55M A round to build a ground­break­ing biotech

It’s hard not to en­joy talk­ing with Greg Ver­dine about the new biotech com­pa­nies he sets up. Years of teach­ing at Har­vard have honed his skill for trans­lat­ing sci­ence in­to a pithy set of sto­ries that every­one can un­der­stand and get a kick out of.

“What I am re­al­ly pas­sion­ate about is dis­cov­er­ing new types of mol­e­cules that do things that can’t be done by stan­dard small mol­e­cules and an­ti­bod­ies,” he told me in the lead-up to to­day’s for­mal launch of LifeM­ine Ther­a­peu­tics with a $55 mil­lion A round. “I want to go af­ter un­drug­gable tar­gets, get drugs that peo­ple con­sid­er now aren’t doable. The ques­tion is where you go look­ing for this.”

Greg Ver­dine

The an­swer for Ver­dine, this time, is fun­gi.

“Fun­gi have been duk­ing it out with their neigh­bors in the soil for a bil­lion years,” says Ver­dine, “steal­ing the lunch of their cowork­ers, com­pet­ing, and fend­ing off in­vaders us­ing small mol­e­cules as com­pet­i­tive sub­stances.” And it all fits very close­ly with hu­man pro­teins, giv­ing it a good shot at work­ing in hu­mans.

It helps that evo­lu­tion doesn’t obey the same rules that guide med­i­c­i­nal chemists, and now Ver­dine’s new com­pa­ny will re­ly on se­quenc­ing to fol­low this strange path in search of some rad­i­cal new break­throughs in can­cer — a field that has at­tract­ed bil­lions of dol­lars to back a new gen­er­a­tion of ther­a­pies.

To do this, he says, the team has to “grow up fun­gi in­di­vid­u­al­ly, iso­late DNA and se­quence the DNA. Take the DNA and an­a­lyze it for biosyn­thet­ic gene clus­ters; an in­struc­tion set to make a nat­ur­al prod­uct.”

Ver­dine blends mul­ti­ple roles in biotech: Pro­fes­sor, ven­ture part­ner at WuXi Health­care Ven­tures — which seed­ed this new start­up — and now a dou­ble CEO, with his dual role run­ning Fog Phar­ma made eas­i­er by hav­ing both com­pa­nies housed in the same build­ing in Cam­bridge, MA.

Over the years Ver­dine has been one of the most pro­lif­ic start­up artists in the busi­ness, a go-to fig­ure in the in­dus­try who’s helped kick a slate of biotechs in­to ex­is­tence, rang­ing from Enan­ta to Tokai, Aileron and Warp Dri­ve Bio, which he al­so helmed for a time.

Right now the team at LifeM­ine is made up of a dozen sci­en­tists and five DNA spe­cial­ists, where they are fo­cus­ing on pro­grams and tar­gets for the pipeline as they build the plat­form along the way. By mid-2019, Ver­dine ex­pects the crew to ex­pand to about 40 staffers.

It’s still ear­ly days, though.

“We’ve left our­selves 3.5 years to en­ter the clin­ic,” says Ver­dine.

That re­quires some very pa­tient mon­ey, which Ver­dine lined up from WuXi Health­care Ven­tures with a syn­di­cate that in­cludes Fore­site Cap­i­tal, Google Ven­tures (or GV, with Kr­ish­na Yesh­want join­ing the board), Arch Ven­ture Part­ners, Boyu Cap­i­tal, Blue Pool Cap­i­tal, MRL Ven­tures Fund, and Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments.

Those blue chip VC names are mix­ing with some mon­ey out of two promi­nent Chi­nese in­vestors, aside from the transpa­cif­ic WuXi op­er­a­tion: Boyu — an in­flu­en­tial pri­vate eq­ui­ty group led by co-founder and part­ner Sean Tong — and Blue Pool.

At this stage of his life, Ver­dine is po­si­tioned at ex­act­ly the right place, and ex­act­ly the right time, for a pricey space shot in­to the biotech uni­verse. The stars have aligned — again.

Ken Frazier appears before the Senate Committee on Finance for a hearing on prescription drug pricing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 26, 2019. Chris Kleponis for CNP via AP Images

Who’s next in line to suc­ceed Ken Fra­zier as CEO of the Keytru­da-blessed Mer­ck?

When Merck waved off a looming forced retirement for Ken Frazier last September, the board cited flexibility in CEO transition as a key factor in the decision. Having Frazier — who’s also chairman of the company — around beyond his 65th birthday in 2019 would ensure they install the best person at the best time, they said.

The board has evidently begun that process with a clear preference for internal candidates, sources told Bloomberg. CFO Robert Davis, chief marketing officer Michael Nally, and chief commercial officer Frank Clyburn are all in the running, according to an insider.

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In starved an­tibi­ot­ic field, Melin­ta soars as FDA grants speedy drug re­view

Such is the state of af­fairs in an­tibi­ot­ic land that the FDA agree­ing to pri­or­i­ty re­view an ap­pli­ca­tion to ex­pand the use of an an­tibi­ot­ic can rock­et up a stock more than two-fold.

On Wednes­day, Melin­ta Ther­a­peu­tics said its ap­proved an­tibi­ot­ic Baxdela had been grant­ed pri­or­i­ty re­view for use in com­mu­ni­ty-ac­quired bac­te­r­i­al pneu­mo­nia (CAPB). The FDA is ex­pect­ed to make its de­ci­sion by Oc­to­ber 24. Shares of the Con­necti­cut drug­mak­er $ML­NT cat­a­pult­ed, clos­ing up near­ly 224% at $6.41.

Brent Saunders at an Endpoints News event in 2017 — File photo

An­a­lyst call with Al­ler­gan ex­ecs stokes an­tic­i­pa­tion of a plan to split the com­pa­ny in ‘a month or two’

So what’s up at Al­ler­gan?

Ear­li­er this week the ubiq­ui­tous Ever­core ISI an­a­lyst Umer Raf­fat was on the line with com­pa­ny ex­ec­u­tives to probe in­to the lat­est on the num­bers as well as CEO Brent Saun­ders’ re­cent de­c­la­ra­tion that he’d be do­ing some­thing de­fin­i­tive to help long-suf­fer­ing in­vestors who have watched their shares dwin­dle in val­ue.

He came away with the im­pres­sion that a sig­nif­i­cant com­pa­ny split is on the way. And not on some dis­tant time hori­zon.

How small- to mid-sized biotechs can adopt pa­tient cen­tric­i­ty in their on­col­o­gy tri­als

By Lucy Clos­sick Thom­son, Se­nior Di­rec­tor of On­col­o­gy Pro­ject Man­age­ment, Icon

Clin­i­cal tri­als in on­col­o­gy can be cost­ly and chal­leng­ing to man­age. One fac­tor that could re­duce costs and re­duce bar­ri­ers is har­ness­ing the pa­tient voice in tri­al de­sign to help ac­cel­er­ate pa­tient en­roll­ment. Now is the time to adopt pa­tient-cen­tric strate­gies that not on­ly fo­cus on pa­tient needs, but al­so can main­tain cost ef­fi­cien­cy.

Neil Woodford. Woodford Investment Management via YouTube

Wood­ford braces po­lit­i­cal storm as UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors scru­ti­nize fund sus­pen­sion

The shock of Neil Wood­ford’s de­ci­sion to block with­drawals for his flag­ship fund is still rip­pling through the rest of his port­fo­lio — and be­yond. Un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, UK fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tors are now tak­ing a hard look while in­vestors con­tin­ue to flee.

In a re­sponse let­ter to an MP, the Fi­nan­cial Con­duct Au­thor­i­ty re­vealed that it’s opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing months of en­gage­ment with Link Fund So­lu­tions, which tech­ni­cal­ly del­e­gat­ed Wood­ford’s firm to man­age its funds.

John Reed at JPM 2019. Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News

Sanofi's John Reed con­tin­ues to re­or­ga­nize R&D, cut­ting 466 jobs while boost­ing can­cer, gene ther­a­py re­search

The R&D reorganization inside Sanofi is continuing, more than a year after the pharma giant brought in John Reed to head the research arm of the Paris-based company.
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UP­DAT­ED: Chica­go biotech ar­gues blue­bird, Third Rock 'killed' its ri­val, pi­o­neer­ing tha­lassemia gene ther­a­py in law­suit

Blue­bird bio $BLUE chief Nick Leschly court­ed con­tro­ver­sy last week when he re­vealed the com­pa­ny’s be­ta tha­lassemia treat­ment will car­ry a jaw-drop­ping $1.8 mil­lion price tag over a 5-year pe­ri­od in Eu­rope — mak­ing it the plan­et’s sec­ond most ex­pen­sive ther­a­py be­hind No­var­tis’ $NVS fresh­ly ap­proved spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy ther­a­py, Zol­gens­ma, at $2.1 mil­lion. A Chica­go biotech, mean­while, has been fum­ing at the side­lines. In a law­suit filed ear­li­er this month, Er­rant Gene Ther­a­peu­tics al­leged that blue­bird and ven­ture cap­i­tal group Third Rock un­law­ful­ly prised a vi­ral vec­tor, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter (MSK), from its grasp, and thwart­ed the de­vel­op­ment of its sem­i­nal gene ther­a­py.

The top 10 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­ate adds 6 new ther­a­pies to heavy-hit­ter list

Vertex comes in for a substantial amount of criticism for its no-holds-barred tactical approach toward wresting the price it wants for its commercial drugs in Europe. But the flip side of that coin is a highly admired R&D and commercial operation that regularly wins kudos from analysts for their ability to engineer greater cash flow from the breakthrough drugs they create.

Both aspects needed for success in this business are on display in the program backing Vertex’s triple for cystic fibrosis. VX-659/VX-445 + Tezacaftor + Ivacaftor — it’s been whittled down to 445 now — was singled out by Evaluate Pharma as the late-stage therapy most likely to win the crown for drug sales in 5 years, with a projected peak revenue forecast of $4.3 billion.

The latest annual list, which you can see here in their latest world preview, includes a roster of some of the most closely watched development programs in biopharma. And Evaluate has added 6 must-watch experimental drugs to the top 10 as drugs fail or go on to a first approval. With apologies to the list maker, I revamped this to rank the top 10 by projected 2024 sales, instead of Evaluate's net present value rankings.

It's how we roll at Endpoints News.

Here is a quick summary of the rest of the top 10:

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Partners Innovation Fund

David de Graaf now has his $28.5M launch round in place, build­ing a coen­zyme A plat­form in his lat­est start­up

Long­time biotech ex­ec David de Graaf has the cash he needs to set up the pre­clin­i­cal foun­da­tion for his coen­zyme A me­tab­o­lism com­pa­ny Comet. A few high-pro­file in­vestors joined the ven­ture syn­di­cate to sup­ply Comet with $28.5 mil­lion in launch mon­ey — enough to get it two years in­to the plat­form-build­ing game, with­in knock­ing dis­tance of the clin­ic.

Canaan jumped in along­side ex­ist­ing in­vestor Sofinno­va Part­ners to co-lead the round, with par­tic­i­pa­tion by ex­ist­ing in­vestor INKEF Cap­i­tal and new in­vestor BioIn­no­va­tion Cap­i­tal.