The End­points 11: A group of dis­rup­tive up­starts on a do-or-die mis­sion to launch new meds

Over the last 15 years I’ve had the chance to help select about 200 private biotechs for up-and-coming awards like this. Looking over the rank and file of this disruptive crowd, I had my standouts, my OK borderline selections, and some truly dreadful, cringe-worthy choices.

Such is the game of judging private biotechs, where you always wind up making hunches based on an incomplete picture. But then that’s also much of the fun, right?

Everyone who does this sort of thing likes to pretend that they can pick which of these fledglings can shoot the rapids of drug development and come out of the white water doing high fives. But the reality is that we all have our good and bad ideas.

And you learn along the way.

With my first selection of the Endpoints 11 (complete with a neat logo conceptualized by our creative assistant editor Amber Tong), I’m getting started on generation 2.0 of my idea of top companies that just may be headed for greatness.

There are several key attributes that characterize each of the E11, and help me hedge my bets. Each represents an important trend in biotech creation.

Most have top teams that are well recognized for earlier successes. Experienced biotech execs these days can generally have their pick of the litter when it comes to new companies angling for a launch. So when you see a prominent biotech exec make the transition out of incubation and onto the stage — often alongside close associates that they have known and worked with for years — it may not guarantee a winner, but it sure is comforting when smart, successful people love the science behind a startup.

That will serve as my segue into technology. Me-too drugs have been discredited for years now. Payers may use them to pick the lock on lower prices, but it’s a woeful development strategy. Every company in this year’s maiden E11 is swinging for the fences, looking to drug the undruggable or race with ambitious rivals to achieve something remarkable.

So scientific ambition is key.

Enough money to get through to the next stage of human data is critical.

There is a healthy debate going on right now whether the 4-year tidal wave of investor cash coursing through the industry is essentially causing risky behavior that will squander cash. Given the inherent risks associated with drug development, and the groundbreaking nature of what they’re trying to achieve, a good chunk of that investment money is going up in flames — under the best of circumstances.

If anyone in the E11 fail, it likely won’t be because they were starved for cash. And this business isn’t cheap. Also, if any of these companies below go belly up, you will hear the explosion from halfway around the world.

The right partner can be everything in this business, helping make all the difference in picking up speed in the clinic and providing the kind of commercial clout needed to move markets. That’s another big factor in the list.

If there’s one overarching theme I’d like to highlight most, it’s that drug development is a global pursuit. The US may be where the money is in terms of windfall profits, and it may still drive the lion’s share of the development work as the industry feels the full flush of cash coursing through labs, but the science is international. So is much of the clinical work. These companies span three continents, from North America to Europe and Asia.

And Asia is coming on strong, with major implications for the industry as a whole.

Finally, just because this is the first E11 doesn’t mean I’m starting over. If you’ve already been highlighted in another annual award I once managed, your chances of a repeat here were reduced to nil. We need to share the spotlight.

I’ll be back in the fall with my picks of 2018. And if you have any recommendations along the way, send them my way as I manage the next short list. — John Carroll 

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Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Covid-19 man­u­fac­tur­ing roundup: Mary­land looks to grow biotech ca­pac­i­ty with $400M check; Rus­sia lands sec­ond Sput­nik V part­ner this week

A Maryland real estate project has added three new biotech-focused manufacturing and research buildings to an office park to keep up with demand created by the pandemic, the Washington Business Journal reported.

The Milestone Business Park — located off of I-270 in Germantown, MD — will see the new buildings and a total of 532,000 square feet as the campus rebrands to Milestone Innovation Park.

Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Bay­er plots a ma­jor facelift at Berke­ley cam­pus, un­cork­ing a 30-year, $1.2B plan to dri­ve cell and gene ther­a­pies

Bayer first set roots in Berkeley back in 1974, when it was still operating as Miles Labs. The site has pumped out three hemophilia A treatments for distribution worldwide; but now, as the pharma continues its cell and gene therapy push, it has something bigger in mind.

Bayer is planning a 30-year revamp at the campus, which includes 918,000 square feet in new buildings and double the jobs, according to a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

LLS backs 5 new can­cer drug projects with up to $50M; Trodelvy con­tin­ues to im­press with more TNBC da­ta

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has tapped 5 new early-stage projects to back with up to $10 million each in fresh investments. The 5 biotechs are:

— Caribou, headed by Rachel Haurwitz and co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, is working on next-gen, off-the-shelf CAR-Ts to replace the patient-derived cells now in use.

— The LLS supported NexImmune’s IPO, helping fund its work on nanoparticles that can gin up an immune response directed at cancer cells. The biotech has 2 projects now in Phase I trials.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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