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Novartis loses a head honcho, with US oncology head Bill Hinshaw exiting for new gig at Axcella

Big Pharma has lost yet another top executive to the glossy ranks of small — but cash-rich — biotech, with Bill Hinshaw, the former head of US oncology at Novartis, exiting the company to join Axcella Health.

Bill Hinshaw

Hinshaw will head up Axcella, a Flagship Pioneering-backed biotech in Cambridge, MA, as CEO and president, taking the reins just in time for the biotech to start forming a commercialization plan for its pipeline. Hinshaw tells me he felt ready to take a dive — a risk — to work on something truly transformational, and the new generation of small biotechs like Axcella have the flexibility to make big change.

“In Big Pharma, you can paint on a big canvas and that’s compelling at different stages, but there’s innovative power available right now in biotech,” Hinshaw said.

Axcella came on Hinshaw’s radar due to his longtime ties to David Epstein, Axcella’s chairman and an executive partner at Flagship. The two worked together in the past at Novartis, where Hinshaw led the development and launch of drugs like Tasigna, Gleevec, and Kymriah. Epstein said Hinshaw’s background was critical in positioning Axcella for its next phase.

The company is working on a scientific platform in a fairly new area of research: metabolic modulators. Axcella has been tackling preclinical models to predict which combination of amino acids restore health across a network of dysregulated pathways, and the platform has delivered clinical programs in liver, metabolic, CNS, and orphan diseases.

Hinshaw and Epstein wouldn’t say which program is pinned as most promising, but noted upcoming data in NASH and muscle disease will help point Axcella towards a lead program.

David Epstein

For Hinshaw, Axcella’s tech was compelling enough to take a risk and say goodbye to Novartis after 15 years with the company.

“I think the science itself (at Axcella) is fundamental to human health, and it offers the potential to restore the balance of health in a natural and powerful way,” Hinshaw said. “We’ve seen the evolution of science move from proteins to cellular therapies, and I was looking for something that had the potential to be truly transformational. But it also had to be fundamentally sound and with broad applicability.”

It’s not the first time a Flagship Pioneering company snagged top talent from Big Pharma. Epstein said its natural for executives like Hinshaw to exit the giants of yesteryear at time when smaller companies are flush with cash.

“It’s pretty exciting to take one’s experiences and apply it to cutting edge science rather than doing something that’s incremental,” Epstein said. “The funding is much better than it was five or six years ago, and more capital means you don’t have to do just one drug. You can do a whole platform technology.”

Plus, Big Pharma is losing its appeal.

“It’s getting harder and harder to enjoy one’s time there, as the industry is constantly under pressure,” Epstein said. In Cambridge, he says, executives are surrounded by exciting science, venture capital, and an “engaging and stimulating environment.” It’s no wonder top talent wanders.

“We’re probably just at the beginning of people moving on from big companies to smaller biotechs,” Epstein said.


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