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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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

Janet Wood­cock to be act­ing FDA com­mis­sion­er while Biden team fi­nal­izes nom­i­nee — re­ports

Janet Woodcock is set to be the most powerful person at the FDA in less than a week.

The veteran regulator and longtime director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has been tapped as acting commissioner of the FDA, according to reports by BioCentury’s Steve Usdin and Pink Sheet’s Sarah Karlin-Smith.

The appointment was requested by the incoming Biden team, Karlin-Smith added, as they sort out the nomination of a permanent successor to Stephen Hahn — whose one-year tenure has been defined by Covid-19.

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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

Janet Wood­cock is in the run­ning for FDA com­mis­sion­er — what does that mean for the agen­cy's fu­ture?

Just a day after reports emerged that Janet Woodcock will serve as interim chief of the FDA, word has gotten out that she is also in the running for the permanent job.

The decision, as the initial wave of reactions suggest, could have dramatic implications for where the agency is headed in the next four years — if not beyond.

Woodcock, the longtime CDER director, is being vetted alongside former FDA principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, Bloomberg reported. Already tapped as acting head of the agency, she’s set to take over from Stephen Hahn right after Biden’s inauguration next week.

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Steve Harr (L) and Hans Bishop

Paint­ing by the num­bers, Sana founders carve up a gi­ant uni­corn-sized IPO — for a biotech that has­n't quite made it to the clin­ic

Sana Biotechnology is one of those startups that was sketched in on the chalkboard day one in the shape of a unicorn.

A giant unicorn.

And from the numbers the cell therapy 2.0 play spelled out in their S-1 $SANA, it’s clear that the company founders — led by a pair of major VCs aligned with some high-profile industry figures — are hunting a big chunk of that value for themselves.

The raise they penciled in — $150 million — isn’t likely what they actually have in mind, and it doesn’t do justice to the size of their ambitions.

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CEO Brett Monia (Ionis)

Can Brett Mo­nia push Io­n­is be­yond Spin­raza?

For 30 years, Brett Monia struggled as one of Ionis’ top scientists to get their antisense technology to work. Now, as CEO, he’s trying to use it to turn Ionis into one of the industry’s biggest biotechs.

Monia, one of the handful of young scientists who in 1989 followed Stanley Crooke across the country from SmithKline (now GSK) in Philadelphia to found Ionis in Northern California, replaced Crooke as CEO last January. By then, they had proven antisense, an RNA-based method for manipulating gene expression, could work dramatically well in at least some instances, transforming spinal muscular atrophy with the Biogen-partnered blockbuster Spinraza.

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David Kessler in April 2009 (Eric Risberg/AP Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Hack­ers start re­leas­ing 'ma­nip­u­lat­ed' Covid-19 vac­cine docs; Ex-FDA com­mish David Kessler to re­place Mon­cef Slaoui as Op­er­a­tion Warp Speed chief — re­port

There’s a new twist on the EMA Covid-19 hacking story.

Friday the European agency put out the 5th in a series of statements about the hackers who broke into their system, noting that some of the information on vaccines that was gleaned in the attack is showing up online — altered to raise questions about the Covid-19 vaccines now in use.

This included internal/confidential email correspondence dating from November, relating to evaluation processes for COVID-19 vaccines. Some of the correspondence has been manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines.

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A long­time Pfiz­er chief's ul­tra-qui­et biotech re-emerges with new cash and plans for the clin­ic

In August 2018, a tiny biotech spinout from Cornell announced they had hired former high-ranking Pfizer executive Geno Germano as CEO. And then they said nothing else. For two years. Literally, the company, called Elucida Oncology, did not issue a single other press release until this past October, when they hired a chief medical officer.

Now, though, Elucida seems to be ready to start taking the lid off their operations. On Tuesday at JP Morgan, Germano walked investors through the nanoparticle technology they’ve been developing for cancer. And the same day, the company announced a new financing, raising $44 million in a Series “A-1” round meant to propel them into the clinic this year.

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Terry Rosen, Arcus CEO

Gilead part­ner Ar­cus earns an­a­lyst­s' plau­dits for ear­ly pan­cre­at­ic can­cer da­ta that 'ex­ceed­ed ex­pec­ta­tion­s'

Arcus’ small molecule CD73 inhibitor for pancreatic cancer got a standing ovation from analysts who said preliminary data “exceeded expectations”— making waves in a field that’s seen little progress in several years and proving the candidate could be worth the hundreds of millions Gilead provided upfront in a deal that included more than a billion dollars for opt-in rights and milestones.

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News brief­ing: Five Prime fi­nal­izes PhI­II plans for gas­tric can­cer; AI di­ag­nos­tics-fo­cused Paige ex­pands staff

Five Prime Therapeutics has finalized a plan to take their comeback gastric cancer drug into late-stage studies.

The South San Francisco-based biotech released full Phase II data for bemarituzumab on Friday, which Five Prime said in November met all of its pre-specified efficacy endpoints in a topline readout. Now, the company is announcing it plans to launch a Phase III trial for the program in 2021. Following November’s readout, the future of bemarituzumab had not yet been finalized.

Peter Thiel, Getty (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

Pe­ter Thiel's psy­che­delics-fo­cused ATAI ac­quires ma­jor­i­ty stake in Recog­ni­fy and its lead schiz­o­phre­nia can­di­date

Billionaire Peter Thiel has made significant and sometimes controversial pushes into life sciences over the past few years, and one of his startups out of Berlin has made a new acquisition less than two months after achieving unicorn status.

ATAI Life Sciences purchased a majority stake Tuesday in Recognify Life Sciences, a company focused on developing treatments for cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia. The financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the acquisition follows up a $125 million Series C in November co-led by Thiel, leading to a post-money valuation of about $1 billion for ATAI.