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Small is big: Pharma’s R&D brain drain continues as GSK’s Chris Carpenter jumps to upstart Rubius

Chris Carpenter

The steady migration of top R&D execs out of Big Pharma and into little biotech is continuing this morning.

After spending the last decade in Big Pharma R&D, Chris Carpenter is making the leap to biotech, joining the rising star Rubius as chief medical officer.

Carpenter — a former associate professor at Harvard Med, where he ran a lab for years — spent the last six years at GSK, where he wrapped up his stint as a senior VP and head of cancer epigenetics. He jumped from Harvard to Merck to GSK, where he was credited with leading the development of Votrient. And at Merck he worked on MK-4827, which went on to become Tesaro’s PARP drug Zejula.

He’s going to one of the best financed upstarts in biotech. Just a few months ago, Cambridge, MA-based Rubius lined up a $120 million round, with plans to develop a full pipeline of new drugs.

Carpenter says he didn’t leave GSK’s Philadelphia operations because he was unhappy. Far from it.

“I really enjoyed my time at GSK,” he tells me. “The DPU (Discovery Performance Units) model really works and provides a lot of innovation.”

Instead, once he had a chance to take a serious look at the technology Rubius is working with, he felt he couldn’t pass on the chance of playing a lead role developing something completely novel, with applications in a variety of diseases.

“For me, it really was something that no one else was doing and I really wanted to get in on the ground floor.”

The red-cell therapy tech they have is designed to isolate hematopoietic stem cells from O negative donors and use them as the building blocks for new therapies, genetically engineering them into red blood drugs that can express a multitude of proteins on the cells while they still have a nucleus, modulating them for protein expression and then shedding the nucleus as they switch on the therapeutic qualities of the cell.

The new executive chairman of Rubius is David Epstein, the former pharma chief at Novartis.

With biotech booming, we’ve been seeing a steady migration of senior research and manufacturing execs leaving senior spots at the world’s biggest developers in favor of a startup like Rubius. A few weeks ago, for example, we saw Tony Ho leave a top job at AstraZeneca for a role running R&D at CRISPR Therapeutics. At the same time Juan Andres left a top job in Novartis’ global manufacturing division to take a lead role at Moderna. And in recent days we’ve seen the likes of Andrew Witty and Moncef Slaoui, the former CEO and ex-R&D head at GSK, start new careers in biotech venture capital firms. The list goes on.

Their places in Big Pharma R&D are often filled by high-profile academic investigators. And that is starting to look like the great circle of drug R&D in this brave new world.


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