Har­vard prof Omid Farokhzad heads west, set­ting up a new Bay Area biotech on a mis­sion to start a rev­o­lu­tion in pre-symp­to­matic dis­ease de­tec­tion

As a Har­vard pro­fes­sor with close ties to MIT’s Bob Langer, Omid Farokhzad has en­joyed a high-pro­file role in the Boston/Cam­bridge biotech com­mu­ni­ty, where he’s par­tic­i­pat­ed in launch­ing a line­up of star­tups. And now Farokhzad — whose ac­com­plish­ments ex­tend to his role as physi­cian-sci­en­tist at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pi­tal — has put it all in his rear view mir­ror, jour­ney­ing out to the Bay Area to launch a new biotech he vows can go on to play a rev­o­lu­tion­ary role in open­ing the door to the ear­ly de­tec­tion of dis­eases.

And this time, he’s helm­ing the ven­ture as a first-time CEO.

The com­pa­ny is called Seer, which is tak­ing its place in the bustling biotech hub that Genen­tech helped cre­ate in South San Fran­cis­co. The big idea: Shift­ing away from ge­nomics, Seer’s team has been build­ing a pro­teomics plat­form that will do some pop­u­la­tion-wide ex­plo­rations, build­ing a moun­tain of da­ta that can be probed with ma­chine learn­ing tech in search of in­sights in­to dis­eases that can be used to de­vel­op liq­uid biop­sy prod­ucts for ear­ly-stage di­ag­no­sis.  

Bob Langer

The ear­li­er you are in de­tect­ing dis­ease, the bet­ter your chances of cur­ing it — or stop­ping it from be­com­ing a threat. If it works, Seer will build and mar­ket liq­uid biop­sy prod­ucts for pre-symp­to­matic dis­eases, start­ing with can­cer and neu­rol­o­gy.

Why the abrupt change of lo­cale and jobs? We talked about that.

“If I didn’t put my own fin­ger­print on (Seer) in a mean­ing­ful way,” Farokhzad tells me, “I knew I would re­gret it for the rest of my life.”

The Bay Area, he adds, is the on­ly place he can find the right tal­ent mix to do this com­plex tech work on the pro­teome, a dis­ci­pline that would re­quire ex­per­tise in nan­otech­nol­o­gy (his spe­cial­ty), pro­tein chem­istry, ma­chine learn­ing and da­ta an­a­lyt­ics for a mas­sive amount of da­ta — “done rapid­ly at scale.”

Hav­ing formed Seer a year ago, Farokhzad left his Cam­bridge/Boston post last March to join a team that has since grown to 20. Dur­ing that time, he’s pieced to­geth­er $36 mil­lion in ven­ture sup­port for his com­pa­ny. That group of back­ers in­cludes Mav­er­ick Ven­tures and In­vus.

Philip Ma

MIT’s pro­lif­ic Langer, who’s al­lied with his for­mer post­doc stu­dent on star­tups like Blend Ther­a­peu­tics — which lat­er re­tooled its tech and changed its name to Tarve­da — is in for the ride, lead­ing the sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry group for Seer. And then there’s Philip Ma, the pres­i­dent and chief busi­ness de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer. The ex-McK­in­sey part­ner set up the Dig­i­tal Health Tech­nolo­gies and Da­ta Sci­ences group at Bio­gen. The rest of the team — which will dou­ble in size over the next year — in­cludes a broad range of tal­ents.

Farokhzad be­lieves they should be po­si­tioned to start pro­duc­ing clin­i­cal read­outs from their de­vel­op­ment work in 2019 and 2020, with their first new prod­uct on the 2021 time hori­zon.

“Pre­clin­i­cal is tough to de­ci­pher,” says the sci­en­tist. “You have to get in­to clin­i­cal stud­ies to re­al­ly un­der­stand what’s go­ing on.”

The sci­en­tist has banked plen­ty of ex­pe­ri­ence along the way of an event­ful ca­reer. His list of star­tups in­cludes Se­lec­ta as well as Bind Bio­sciences, which sold off its as­sets un­der bank­rupt­cy.

At this point, the tech­nol­o­gy he’s now fo­cused on has reached the stage where you can do some­thing fast with a small num­ber of pro­teins, or take days and weeks to go broad. Farokhzad be­lieves Seer is po­si­tion­ing it­self to go broad fast, which could have ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions. Be­ing able at some point to re­li­ably iden­ti­fy pre-symp­to­matic Alzheimer’s, to use the most ob­vi­ous and chal­leng­ing ex­am­ple, would open up a new ap­proach to drug de­vel­op­ment af­ter bil­lions of dol­lars have been burned up in fruit­less R&D pro­grams.

Big dream? You could say so. If Il­lu­mi­na is the leader in ge­nomics, Farokhzad be­lieves the new­ly un­veiled Seer can be­come a gi­ant just as big fol­low­ing the pro­teomics path­way.

“There is an ex­treme­ly large vac­u­um to fill in be­com­ing a leader in this field,” he says. “We’re talk­ing about many tens of bil­lions of mar­ket op­por­tu­ni­ty.”


Im­age: Omid Farokhzad. SEER

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.

Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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