Joining the exodus at Gilead, CMO Andrew Cheng makes the switch to biotech CEO — triggering a cross-country move for Akero

Andrew Cheng spent close to 20 years at Gilead, ending as its chief medical officer after playing a key role in developing a string of blockbusters. Now, after making a recent exit at Gilead in an exodus of top execs, he’s surfaced at the helm of an upstart biotech with plans to play a disruptive role in the burgeoning NASH field.

Jonathan Young

Cheng is the new CEO of Akero Therapeutics, and his recruitment was important enough for the still-small company to decide to switch its headquarters from the hot hub in Cambridge, MA to trendy San Francisco. And startup CEO Jonathon Young will now switch to the COO’s job.

With venture cash surging and IPOs still hot, startup biotech has been an appealing field for top researchers at the big players looking for new challenges — and an equity stake. Gilead in particular has seen the revolving door to the executive suite spin in recent months, with CEO John Milligan joining Chairman John Martin and R&D chief Norbert Bischofberger as they head out in search of new career chapters.

Tim Rolph

Akero CSO Tim Rolph has been enthusiastic about the biotech’s chances in the crowded NASH field. A Pfizer vet, Rolph is working on an FGF21 drug that’s already been through early-stage work at Amgen. Now the company plans to jump into Phase II next year.

“My experience with FGF21 goes back 8 years,” Rolph told me in June, when Akero landed its $65 million launch round. And the science around FGF21, he added, has grown exponentially in the last 3 to 4 years. “It’s a mechanism that uses the whole body to get to a better place,” noted Rolph. “It plays an essential role restoring cells under stress — that’s what drove my interest.”

I asked Cheng via email what prompted him to jump from a leading R&D role at a company with a multibillion-dollar research budget to a startup. His reply:

I’ve spent most of my professional career at Gilead. I had the tremendous opportunity to shape and build a really exciting clinical program in HIV and be part of the growth and trajectory of the company from an early stage. Our therapies have benefited millions of people around the world. When I was approached with the Akero opportunity, I was moved to once again build something — to work with a great team, and be close to the science and clinical development. Our lead candidate is a compelling asset with strong potential in NASH and other metabolic diseases, one that I’m confident we can build a company around.

Apple Tree Partners, where Young has been a partner, seeded the project. Atlas Venture, venBio Partners and Versant Ventures all joined as co-leads, making an impressive group of deep-pocket investors, which no doubt played a big role in wooing Cheng. The investors are represented on the board by Aaron Kantoff, Kevin Bitterman, Aaron Royston and Graham Walmsley.

Image: Andrew Cheng. AKERO

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