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

As Nas­daq en­rolls the fi­nal batch of 2019 IPOs, how have the num­bers com­pared to past years?

IGM Biosciences’ upsized IPO haul, coming after SpringWorks’ sizable public debut, has revved up some momentum for the last rush of biotech IPOs in 2019.

With 39 new listings on the books and roughly two more months to go before winding down, Nasdaq’s head of healthcare listings Jordan Saxe sees the exchange marking 50 to 60 biopharma IPOs for the year.

“December 15 is usually the last possible day that companies will price,” he said, as companies get ready for business talks at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.

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Analysts hate to lose a biotech CFO they’ve come to trust and admire — especially if they’re being blindsided by a surprise exit.

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Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the current gladiators of cancer treatment, but they come with well-known limitations and side-effects. The emergence of immunotherapy — a ferocious new titan in oncologist’s toolbox — takes the brakes off the immune system to kill cancer cells with remarkable success in some cases, but the approach is not always effective. What makes certain forms of cancer so resilient? Scientists may have finally pieced together a tantalizing piece of the puzzle, and a new biotech is banking on a new approach to fill the gap.

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UP­DAT­ED: Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi to un­veil bill for fed­er­al­ly ne­go­ti­at­ed drug prices

After months of buzz from both sides of the aisle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will today introduce her plan to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for 250 prescription drugs, setting up a showdown with a pharmaceutical industry working overtime to prevent it.

The need to limit drug prices is a rare point of agreement between President Trump and Democrats, although the president has yet to comment on the proposal and will likely face pressure to back a more conservative option or no bill at all. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is reportedly lobbying his fellow party members on a more modest proposal he negotiated with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden in July.

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Jeffrey Kindler’s plan to take his biotech — which is developing a slate of non-opioid painkillers — public, is back on.

The Boston based company, led by former Pfizer $PFE chief Kindler, originally contemplated a $70 million to $80 million IPO last year— but eventually postponed that strategy. On Wednesday, the company revived its bid to make a public debut in a filing with the SEC — although no pricing details were disclosed.

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Gottlieb — one of the best connected execs in biopharma — knows this company well. As head of FDA he championed the use of real-world evidence to help guide drug developers and the agency in gaining greater efficiencies, which helped set up Aetion as a high-profile player in the game.

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