Out to prove the next big I/O target, Immunitas' chief dealmaker steps up to CEO role
To Amanda Wagner, the past two years or so she’s spent at Immunitas feels like a microcosm of her entire career up to now.
Trained in neuroscience and equipped with an MBA, Wagner’s 16-year biopharma career could be split into a first half in R&D and a second in corporate finance and business development. She was consulting for the Longwood Fund in 2019 when the VC firm pulled her aside to talk about a new immuno-oncology company it was incubating.
“I was like, we can do I/O, but it has to be really highly differentiated,” she recalled.
She was invited to check out the data for herself. In a paper that would eventually be published in Cell, co-founder Kai Wucherpfennig and his lab showed how, using a single-cell sequencing and analysis platform, they identified a new I/O target — CD161 — that can restore the cancer-killing power of both effector memory T cells and NK cells.
And now that’s got her hooked for the long haul. After two years as chief business officer, Wagner will be taking over the wheels as CEO.
“I’ve played multiple hats with the company, as you do at most startups,” she said. “When I first came on board, my primary role was to look at clinical indication strategy, and to think about where the best fit would be for the biology. And I’m a big believer, in general, of best fit biology. And so I worked on the indication prioritization and built out the development team, and then transitioned into looking at business development and partnering and the Series B financing.”
Her promotion, which follows the recent close of a $58 million round, comes as a natural transition upon the resignation of Jeffrey Goldberg, her predecessor and former COO at Akcea. Over the course of growing the biotech, Wagner said, Goldberg came to realize he was much more interested in things like patient access, market access reimbursement and commercial positioning. Immunitas was too early.
With Immunitas being her fourth startup (the last was Atlas-backed Q32 Bio, which was still in stealth), Wagner’s marching orders are pushing as hard as the biotech’s 25 staffers can get to put the lead CD161 compound into the clinic while scaling out the platform and expanding the pipeline in the background — the kind of translational work that’s exactly in her wheelhouse.
“I find that the priorities for early stage biotech tend to be very similar in the first few years,” she said.
With an IND for the lead program planned for the first half of 2022, Wagner said she’s taking over at an “exciting growth moment.” Immunitas is already interviewing for her replacement in BD, scouting partners on everything from the CD161 drug — which it thinks has much broader applications than glioma, where it was initially shown to have an effect — to follow-up candidates and discovery projects.
“We’re the strongest we’ve ever been,” she said.