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

Part club, part guide, part land­lord: Arie Bellde­grun is blue­print­ing a string of be­spoke biotech com­plex­es in glob­al boom­towns — start­ing with Boston

The biotech industry is getting a landlord, unlike anything it’s ever known before.

Inspired by his recent experiences scrounging for space in Boston and the Bay Area, master biotech builder, investor, and global dealmaker Arie Belldegrun has organized a new venture to build a new, 250,000 square foot biopharma building in Boston’s Seaport district — home to Vertex and a number of up-and-coming biotech players.

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Novotech CRO Ex­pands Chi­na Team as Biotech De­mand for Clin­i­cal Tri­als In­creas­es up to 79%

An increase in demand of up to 79% for clinical trials in China has prompted Novotech the Asia-Pacific CRO to rapidly expand the China team, appointing expert local clinical executives to their Shanghai and Hong Kong offices. The company is planning to expand their team by 30% over the next quarter.

Novotech China has seen considerable demand recently which is borne out by research from GlobalData:
A global migration of clinical research is occurring from high-income countries to low and middle-income countries with emerging economies. Over the period 2017 to 2018, for example, the number of clinical trial sites opened by biotech companies in Asia-Pacific increased by 35% compared to 8% in the rest of the world, with growth as high as 79% in China.
Novotech CEO Dr John Moller said China offers the largest population in the world, rapid economic growth, and an increasing willingness by government to invest in research and development.
Novotech’s 23 years of experience working in the region means we are the ideal CRO partner for USA biotechs wanting to tap the research expertise and opportunities that China offers.
There are over 22,000 active investigators in Greater China, with about 5,000 investigators with experience on at least 3 studies (source GlobalData).

UP­DAT­ED: With loom­ing ‘apoc­a­lypse of drug re­sis­tance,’ Mer­ck’s com­bi­na­tion an­tibi­ot­ic scores FDA ap­proval on two fronts

Merck — one of the last large biopharmaceuticals companies in the beleaguered field of antibiotic drug development — on Wednesday said the FDA had sanctioned the approval of its combination antibacterial for the treatment of complicated urinary tract and intra-abdominal infections.

To curb the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and maintain the efficacy of the therapy, Recarbrio (and other antibacterials) — the drug must be used to treat or prevent infections that are proven or strongly suspected to be caused by susceptible gram-negative bacteria, Merck $MRK said.

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John McHutchison in 2012. Getty Images

The $1.1M good­bye: Gilead CSO John McHutchi­son is out as Daniel O’Day shakes up the se­nior team

Just a little more than a year after John McHutchison grabbed a promotion to become CSO at Gilead in the wake of Norbert Bischofberger’s exit, he’s out amid a shakeup of the senior team that is also triggering the departure of two other top execs.

Gilead stated that McHutchison “has decided to step down” from the job as of August 2nd. And their SEC filing notes that he’ll be getting a $1.1 million check to settle up on his contract.

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Thomas Gajewski, David Steinberg. (CRI, Pyxis)

Bay­er, Long­wood back star re­searcher's deep dive in­to the tu­mor mi­croen­vi­ron­ment for new I/O tar­gets

From PD-1 targeting to the RAS pathway to the STING complex, Thomas Gajewski has spent the past two decades of his career decoding the various ways the immune system can be unleashed to defend against cancer. So when the University of Chicago professor comes around to putting all his findings into a new platform for finding new targets, VCs and pharma groups alike pay attention.

“He’s been studying T cells for 20 years, plus he’s one of the world’s leaders if not the world leader in the space,” David Steinberg, partner at Longwood Fund, said. “Furthermore, let me add he did a lot of the foundational research and also some of the seminal clinical trials in the existing set of I/O agents. He understands the space really well, he understands the current strengths, and I think he understood really well what was missing, so he knew where to look.”

Kamala Harris speaking yesterday at the Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum [via Getty]

Who’s the tough­est on drug prices? A game of po­lit­i­cal one-up­man­ship is dri­ving the pol­i­cy de­bate in Wash­ing­ton

Earlier this week we got a look at Senator Kamala Harris’ position on drug prices. She’s proposing that HHS take an average price from single-payer systems like the UK, Germany and Canada — which leverage market access for lower prices — and use that to set the US price. Anything drug companies collect above that would be taxed at a rate of 100%.

And the rhetoric is scathing:
While families struggle to make it to the end of the month, pharmaceutical companies are turning record profits. They’re spending nearly as much on advertising as R&D. They’re manipulating their market power to hike prices on lifesaving generic drugs. They’re making twice the profit of the average industry in America and still increased drug prices by 10.5% over the past six months alone. Meanwhile, they are charging dramatically higher prices to American consumers.
That’s an escalation on Joe Biden’s plan, which includes drug importation from those cheaper markets as well as allowing Medicare to negotiate prices — something that virtually all Dems agree on now.

SJ Lee [File photo]

Go­ing in­side cells, Sung Joo Lee has sketched some big goals for his small — but glob­al — team of drug hunters

For a small biotech based in South Korea with a research arm in Cambridge, MA, Orum Therapeutics has sketched out some big goals aimed at developing antibodies for intracellular targets. And now they have a new $30 million round to push the work forward, aiming at a slate of currently undruggable quests.

Orum has been working on a platform tech out of Ajou University that relies on endocytosis to smuggle antibodies and their cargo inside a cell. They’ve published work in Nature that illustrates its preclinical potential in RAS mutations, and KRAS is on their list of targets. 

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H1 analy­sis: The high-stakes ta­ble in the biotech deals casi­no is pay­ing out some record-set­ting win­nings

For years the big trend among dealmakers at the major players has been centered on ratcheting down upfront payments in favor of bigger milestones. Better known as biobucks for some. But with the top 15 companies competing for the kind of “transformative” pacts that can whip up some excitement on Wall Street, with some big biotechs like Regeneron now weighing in as well, cash is king at the high stakes table.

We asked Chris Dokomajilar, the head of DealForma, to crunch the numbers for us, looking over the top 20 deals for the past decade and breaking it all down into the top alliances already created in 2019. Gilead has clearly tipped the scales in terms of the coin of the bio-realm, with its record-setting $5 billion upfront to tie up to Galapagos’ entire pipeline.

Dokomajilar notes:

We’re going to need a ‘three comma club’ for the deals with over $1 billion in total upfront cash and equity. The $100 million-plus club is getting crowded at 164 deals in the last decade with new deals being added towards the top of the chart. 2019 already has 14 deals with at least $100 million in upfront cash and equity for a total year-to-date of over $9 billion. That beats last year’s $8 billion and sets a record.

Add upfronts and equity payments and you get $11.5 billion for the year, just shy of last year’s record-setting $11.8 billion.

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Takeda's trans­la­tion­al cell ther­a­py group revs up for a race to the clin­ic with off-the-shelf CAR-T

Four years after Takeda launched a wide-ranging induced pluripotent stem cell project with the researchers at Nobel prize-winning Shinya Yamanaka’s lab at the University of Kyoto, the pharma company is taking delivery of the first of what it hopes will be a whole pipeline of iPS cell-derived therapies that can deliver on the promise of off-the-shelf CAR-T therapies.

From here, Stefan Wildt — the head of pharma sciences and translational cell therapy at Takeda — and his group of 100-plus scientists will be charged with steering their way to the clinic as they build out the manufacturing and support work for this pipeline-in-the-making. 

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