Recursion CSO heads west for mini-brain upstart; Novartis vet steps up to the plate as CFO for Andrew Hirsch at C4 Therapeutics
A few months ago, as Recursion hammered out an IPO that would value them at over $3 billion, its CSO, Sharath Hegde, hopped on a plane and flew to San Francisco to visit a small, modestly backed startup, working out of an unmarked warehouse between a brewery and an air-conditioning seller off the highway.
Hegde had joined Recursion in June 2019, a month before they hauled in a $121 million Series C. It was an odd choice for the AI biotech. Recursion claimed they could remake the drug industry by generating huge datasets from their automated labs and running them through state of-the-art machine learning algorithms. Hegde was an old-fashioned drug discoverer, a pharmacologist who had spent the last 20 years playing with molecules the traditional way at Theravance.
As Recursion advanced drugs into the clinic and toward the FDA, though, they wanted a chief scientist who had done it before. And Hegde says he took quickly to the new environment, even if it took a while to learn what the computer scientists were talking about, their slang and shop-talk. “I’m a very analytical pharmacologist. I believe in applying quantitative sciences to anything and everything,” he says. “So the data scientists and computer scientists, they’re not a problem, they think analytically just like I do.”
Then in the winter, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with Saul Kato, a neuroscientist at UC-San Francisco who had spun out a small company dedicated to finding cures for neurodegenerative diseases. Called Herophilus, they received $25 million from Pfizer’s VC unit and others in 2018 and since built out a garage lab by the Mission in San Francisco. Would Hegde want to come out?
Inside the warehouse, Hegde found a large, dimly lit hall, where sleek white tables, laptops, and shelves encircled a glass box about the size of a bedroom, with pipe running in and out of it and an array of complex machinery. Robotic arms moved around and various experiments on 96-well plates contained what looked like any ordinary cell culture but were miniature “brains”: cells extracted from patients with devastating neurodegenerative diseases, chemically reverted into stem cells, and then regrown into 3-D organoids meant to mimic those patients’ conditions.
The promise of this approach, already playing out for other organs and other diseases, was that researchers would study conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s with a nimbleness and, in theory, a fidelity to the actual disease you can’t get from simple flat cell cultures or the oft-criticized animal models pharma has relied on through decades of failed neuroscience research. “They preserve the cyto architecture” — which cell types are located where — “the spatial architecture, the cellular cross-talk and also the cellular diversity which is intrinsic to the brain,” Hegde says of the organoids. “This is something the 2D models and animal models do not recapitulate.”
Relying, like Recursion, on new analytical and machine learning tools to analyze these mini-brains, Herophilus hopes to come up with new targets and new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia. Hegde, taken by the approach and affected in his personal life by these devastating conditions, will now help Kato and his team, leaving the CSO gig at the buzzy, and now monstrously backed Recursion to be CSO of a little-known biotech he says he believes in.
The company, now at 30 employees, is working on a lead program for the rare genetic disease Rett syndrome, while teaming with a pharma partner on Alzheimer’s, though they have yet to release specifics on their approach. Before Recursion, Hegde sometimes evinced skepticism about machine learning or AI, wondering whether the tools were powerful. Now, he says, the field has reached a tipping point.
“This is the way to do it, to discover drugs for neurological diseases,” he says. “And it’s not going to be easy, but this is the way to do it.”
— Jason Mast
→ Andrew Hirsch’s first move away from Agios was taking command at C4 Therapeutics, swiftly guiding them to a hefty IPO that closed near $210 million less than a month into the job. In C4’s next big leadership change, Bill McKee will no longer be interim CFO and Novartis alum Lauren White will be his permanent replacement starting June 21. White has spent the last four years as VP and global head of business planning and analysis at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research and 11 years with the pharma giant overall. McKee shifts to a consultancy role after holding the interim position since last March.
→ Luca Santarelli’s VectivBio has appointed Omar Khwaja as CMO and Christian Meyer as the company’s first COO. The Swiss-based biotech poached Khwaja from embattled Voyager Therapeutics — which has been beset by problems with its gene therapy programs and is recalibrating after CEO Andre Turenne’s departure — serving as CMO and R&D chief since April 2019. During his time at Roche, Khwaja was global head of rare diseases and neuroscience translational medicine.
A Novo Nordisk vet, Meyer grabs hold of the newly-created role after being CMO with Santarelli at Therachon, as well as with uniQure and Cardoz.
→ Macrophage-focused Verseau Therapeutics, co-founded by Bob Langer, has tapped John Edwards as CEO, succeeding Christine Bunt. Edwards, the executive chair at Abcuro — which pulled in what they called a Series A-1 worth $42 million in January — was also the executive chairman at F-star and Tilos Therapeutics, a biotech that Merck gobbled up for $773 million two years ago. Further back, Edwards was COO of Adnexus, and after Bristol Myers Squibb bought the company in 2007, he became Adnexus’ president.
→ Founded by Stanford’s Ed Engleman, led by CEO Sanjay Kakkar and focused on neurodegeneration, California-based Tranquis Therapeutics has recruited Frederic Godderis as COO and Jonas Hannestad as CMO. Godderis, who co-founded and helmed LARRK Bio, had a nearly 19-year run at J&J and was also global head of R&D operations at Jazz Pharmaceuticals. Until this appointment, Hannestad was SVP of clinical development at Alkahest and has also been medical director at Denali and director of neuroscience discovery medicine at UCB. Tranquis debuted last summer with a $30 million launch round.
→ Magenta Therapeutics — focused on steering its stem cell transplant hopefuls through early-stage human trials — has announced that their CMO and head of R&D John Davis is hitting the exit for “family reasons.” Davis joined the Cambridge, MA-based company in February 2018. Prior to his role at Magenta, Davis served in roles at Pfizer, Genentech and Baxalta — where he was formerly global area head of immunology. Davis will remain on the company’s scientific advisory board.
→ Alex Kelly graces Peer Review with his presence in this space again, getting the bump to CFO at off-the-shelf CAR-T player Precision BioSciences after serving on an interim basis since December and first hitting the scene in October as chief corporate affairs officer. Kelly — who replaces Abid Ansari — did investor relations work at Novartis, Schering-Plough (and then Merck after the merger), and Bausch + Lomb, and then spent five years at Allergan as EVP, corporate affairs and chief communications officer while serving as president of the Allergan Foundation. Elsewhere at Precision BioSciences, the interim tag has also been removed for principal accounting officer Shane Barton, adding to his responsibilities as VP and corporate controller.
→ Peter McNamara is headed to Tectonic Therapeutic — Tim Springer’s new startup centered on GPCRs (G protein-coupled receptors) with CEO Alise Reicin adding to the star wattage — as SVP, head of research. Since 2005, McNamara had filled a number of roles at Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, the most recent of which was head of biotherapeutics and biotechnology. In the nine years preceding this, he was GNF’s head of pharmacology and head of general medical biology in succession.
→ After rising through the ranks in a career at Bristol Myers that spanned close to 19 years, Brent Pfeiffenberger is moving on to a new chapter as COO at Carsten Linnemann’s Neogene Therapeutics, helped in part by Arie Belldegrun and David Chang in its massive $110 million Series A. Starting out in sales communications at BMS in 2002, Pfeiffenberger continually vaulted to higher positions, eventually being named head of US oncology at the pharma giant in 2019 after some time as general manager in Australia and New Zealand. Pfeiffenberger will be based out of Neogene’s Santa Monica headquarters.
→ Partnering with Novartis on developing new TCRs and filing for an IPO last month, TScan has pegged Bill Desmarais as CBO. Desmarais moves on to TScan after being influential in the J&J acquisition as VP, business development at Momenta and 11 years in business development and R&D with Eli Lilly. Earlier this month, Brian Silver’s CFO tenure at TScan got underway after holding the same position at Freeline.
One more TScan note: Longtime Novartis alum Gabriela Gruia has made a path to the board of directors, while ex-Sepracor CEO Timothy Barberich has been named chairman.
→ Franz Gerner has been given the dual roles of chief technology officer & head of manufacturing at Excision BioTherapeutics, just weeks after Christine Silverstein stepped into the CFO role at the CRISPR player. Since 2019 Gerner had been VP, technical operations at Sio Gene Therapies, once known as Axovant Gene Therapies, and as part of five years at Regenxbio, he was senior director of technical innovation and new technologies.
Excision has also ushered in Sumathi Sivapalasingam as head of translational medicine. Sivapalasingam hails from Regeneron, having been the New York biotech’s senior director in early clinical development and experimental sciences.
→ Shanghai-based bispecific antibody biotech EpimAb Biotherapeutics has turned to Jerry Su to be chief technology officer. Su had been CEO of Zhejiang Huahai Biopharmaceuticals in Hangzhou, and he brings R&D, manufacturing and CMC expertise from Pfizer, Genzyme, Merck and WuXi Biologics. In March, EpimAb racked up $120 million in a Series C haul, bringing its three-round total to $219 million.
→ CNS-focused Praxis Precision Medicines has handed CFO duties to Tim Kelly. A Roche and Genentech finance alum, Kelly comes to Praxis after two years as CFO at Foundation Medicine. In March, The FDA lifted the clinical hold that was placed in November for the depression drug PRAX-114, and the Cambridge, MA biotech scored an orphan drug designation one month later with PRAX-562 for SCN2A development and epileptic encephalopathy (SCN2A-DEE).
→ Merck KGaA vet Stephen Palmer has signed on as CSO of New York-based women’s health biotech Celmatix, placing its emphasis on ovarian biology with its AMHR2 agonist program. After his work at the German pharma as global head of reproductive health research, Palmer was scientific founder and CSO of TocopheRx, which focused on male and female infertility treatments. He’s also been an associate professor and director of lead discovery and development at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Drug Discovery.
→ ALS-centered QurAlis is making several appointments with Vikas Sharma (CBO), Shirley Lasch (senior director of program management) and Tim O’Brien (senior director of finance) all jumping on board. Sharma comes to the Cambridge, MA biotech after almost three years as BioXcel’s VP, business development, and was director of business development at MacroGenics from 2015-18. Lasch was previously director of clinical operations at XingImaging, while O’Brien’s credits include stops as controller at Inotek Pharmaceuticals and director of financial planning & analysis for Parexel.
→ Copenhagen’s IO Biotech, with €127 million ($154.5 million) worth of Series B funding at its disposal and a BTD in unresectable or metastatic melanoma, has brought on Muhammad Al-Hajj as CSO. Al-Hajj, who has Big Pharma oncology R&D experience from GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Novartis, has spent the last four years as SVP, translational sciences at Autolus.
→ Launching in December with a $20 million Series A and targeting skeletal diseases like spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita — the second leading cause of dwarfism — Innoskel has made David Favre CSO and Samantha Parker chief patient access officer. Favre becomes chief scientist at the Nice, France-based biotech after leaving AskBio as VP, translational medicine, and he was GSK’s director, HIV biology, drug discovery for immune therapy and cure from 2012-18. Parker was previously the chief patient access officer for Lysogene.
→ Perennial Peer Review occupant NeuBase Therapeutics out of Pittsburgh has paved the way for Kia Motesharei to be chief business and strategy officer. Motesharei briefly passed through Akcea Therapeutics as SVP, business development & corporate strategy, getting hired just before Ionis bought back the company. He has also led global licensing and business development in neurology & immunology at Merck KGaA subsidiary EMD Serono. In less than a year, NeuBase has also named a new COO (William Mann), CSO (Curt Bradshaw) and CMO (Sandra Rojas-Caro, last week).
→ With KRAS among their targets, Sung Joo Lee’s Orum Therapeutics has appointed Jae Won Kim as CFO. Kim had spent the last eight years at Citi, wrapping up her time as director on their healthcare investment banking team. “RAS is such a huge space there’s a pocket for every sort of player,” Lee told Endpoints News leading up to Orum’s $30 million Series B. “We’re not focused on one mutation. We’re not small molecule; we’re antibody. We’re going after something more comprehensive.
→ Buckle up for an extensive list of appointments at Jonathan Lim’s cancer biotech Erasca: Brian Baker (SVP of finance) had logged almost four years as Turning Point’s SVP, finance and administration; Rachel Cervantes (VP of business development) is a Merck and Inovio vet who was head of business development at GW Pharmaceuticals; Nik Chetwyn (SVP of operations) has a Big Pharma background that includes GSK and Pfizer, and he led small molecule drug development during his 12 years at Genentech; and Ebun Garner (general counsel and corporate secretary) has legal experience from Neurocrine, Imbria and Acadia.
But wait, there’s more: Chandra Lovejoy (SVP, regulatory affairs) was previously a regulatory exec with G1 Therapeutics; Minli Xie (VP of pharmaceutical development and operations) was with Myovant in its infancy, taking control of CMC activities; Like Baker, Dawei Xuan (VP of clinical pharmacology) is a Turning Point vet who held the same title there for two years; and last but certainly not least, Jing Yi (VP of data science) comes to Erasca after almost 15 years in product development and biostatistics at Roche/Genentech.
→ Napo Pharmaceuticals — a subsidiary of Jaguar Health — has enlisted Darlene Horton as CMO. Horton comes aboard with CMO experience from Coherus Biosciences, Itero Biopharmaceuticals, and SMC Biotechnology. In addition to those roles, Horton was CEO at Nile Therapeutics and TulangCo.
→ Founded by chairman and CEO Jay Mei after his time at Celgene, Antengene has welcomed Kathryn Gregory as VP and head of corporate business development. Gregory co-founded Seneb BioSciences in 2009 and was the company’s CBO and CEO. Turning to the present, she has been an executive advisor at reVision Therapeutics and since 2019 was CBO of Aileron Therapeutics. Along with Gregory, Mei has continued to build his staff in 2021 with such additions as CSO Bo Shan and CMO Kevin Lynch.
→ Los Angeles-based Acelyrin has pulled in Paul Peloso as the company’s CMO. Peloso hops aboard from Horizon Therapeutics, where he served as VP and therapeutic area head for rheumatology. Prior to that, Peloso was group medical director at AbbVie and group medical director, clinical development at Merck.
→ Right at the tail end of raking in $165 million from a Series B funding round, liquid biopsy company Karius has named Bradley Perkins as CMO. Perkins joins the Redwood City, CA-based company from The Commons Project Foundation, where he was co-founder and CMO. Prior to that, he was with Sapiens Data Science and Human Longevity. Additionally, Perkins was chief strategy and innovation officer for the CDC.
→ In a year that has seen Shannon Blalock get promoted to steer the company, among other executive hires, Newport Beach, CA eye disease biotech jCyte has enlisted John Sholar as general counsel. Sholar represented pharmaceutical companies as a partner at Husch Blackwell before he became head of North American legal with Santen Pharmaceuticals and global head of legal and corporate secretary for Santen Ventures.
→ NIH health director Francis Collins has tapped Marie Bernard as the NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity (COSWD), succeeding retiring COSWD Hannah Valantine. Bernard is the founding member of the diversity working group and NIH Equity Committee, as well as co-chair of the NIH Inclusion Governance Committee. In addition, Bernard leads the Women of Color Committee of the Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers. Besides her roles at the NIH, Bernard served as the NIA’s senior geriatrician and principal advisor to the NIA director.
→ Relief Therapeutics has pulled in Taneli Jouhikainen as its first-ever COO. Jouhikainen joins the company from Savara, where he was co-founder, president and COO. Prior to that, Jouhikainen was with Akela Pharma, LAB International and Schering, among others.
→ Indianapolis-based LifeOmic has named Shelagh Fraser as the company’s first CMO. Fraser is a physician practicing internal medicine for Priority Physicians, and she additionally serves on the boards of Aspire Indiana and Karuna Wellness Center.
→ Big fish Stefan Oschmann is stepping in as chairman of the board of AiCuris, succeeding interim chairman Helmut Jeggle — who will continue to serve as board member and vice-chairman. Oschmann, the former CEO and chairman of the executive board of Merck KGaA, handed the reins to Belén Garijo this month.
→ A week after Kumar Srinivasan’s CBO appointment, San Diego oncology player Turning Point Therapeutics has a new chairman of the board: ex-Celgene CEO Mark Alles. With the dust settling from Bristol Myers’ $74 billion acquisition of Celgene, Alles joined the board at Antengene in January 2020 and is also a board member at Syros Pharmaceuticals. Longtime Eli Lilly and Pfizer alum Garry Nicholson will stay on the board after his stint as interim chairman.
→ Shire vet Kathy McGee, who assumed the role of COO at Avita Medical in December, has a seat on Fremont, CA-based Zosano Pharma’s board of directors. McGee was formerly VP, strategic planning, real estate and capital projects at Shire Regenerative Medicine’s West Coast campus.
→ Anabella Villalobos is the latest to have a seat saved on the board of directors at Houston-based Coya Therapeutics, following the inclusion of Prothena CMO Hideki Garren and Indapta chief financial and business officer Dov Goldstein. Villalobos, who is Biogen’s head of biotherapeutics and medicinal sciences, is a 28-year Pfizer veteran.
→ Focused on decoding the dark matter of the human genome to treat disease, Nucleome Therapeutics has named Jonathan Hepple as non-executive director of its board. Hepple hails from Rosetta Capital, where he is co-founder and director. In addition to his new role, Hepple sits on the boards of Mission Therapeutics and Carrick Therapeutics.
→ Jeremy Levin-led Ovid Therapeutics has added two new faces to its scientific advisory board: Joy Cavagnaro and Bruce Sullenger. Cavagnaro is the president of Access BIO and has previously served at the FDA as a member of the senior biomedical research service. Meanwhile, Sullenger is a professor in the department of surgery at the Duke University School of Medicine and a founding director of the Duke Translational Research Institute.
→ A Danish company using artificial intelligence to develop immuno-oncology therapies, Evaxion has recruited Lars Holtug to its board of directors. Holtug had a 35-year stint as a partner of PwC in Denmark. Additionally, Holtug serves as a board member of Ascendis Pharma.
→ Jiong Ma is adding another board seat to her résumé with her appointment at Anavex Life Sciences. Currently, Ma serves on the boards of LinkinVax, Aledia, Voxel8 and Lo3 Energy, among others. Previously, Ma served as a partner at Braemar Energy Ventures.