The End­points 11: Here are some of the most promis­ing star­tups in biotech. And Covid-19 is­n't go­ing to stop them

Quite often when I highlight a private, typically early-stage biotech company for these annual awards, I’m asked what I look for in a company. How do you define an Endpoints 11 company?

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There’s a simple enough answer. First, I look for big ideas among the private biotechs which qualify for review, a swing for the fences. I’m drawn to people who are willing to gamble a chunk of their lives on new drug ideas, and in that regard, the stakes here are huge. Drug development is long and hard, and you could easily be wagering 10 or more years of your life on something. So go big or go home if you aren’t planning to do something transformative.

I want a team directing these projects that have the talent, vigor and knowhow to make it happen. Track records are key and earlier failures can be a big plus — depending on how that played out.

People are always more important than money. That’s a mantra of mine that always earns quick nods in any biotech group. But making sure that a company has enough lucre to make it through to proof of concept, and beyond, is also key to the selection process.

Still, you’ll find companies below that raised a few million to get started, and biotechs that appear to have found the key to Fort Knox. So it’s variable.

And then there’s the noise factor. I want to choose companies that can earn widespread recognition for success — or make a hell of a noise if they fail. None of these companies below will slink off to an anonymous midnight burial if they fall short of victory. They’ll make a noise heard throughout the global industry, and we can all learn from it.

This year, with a pandemic raging around the world, I wanted to focus more on culture than particular assets. Each of these biotechs is sorting out the R&D work, but I want to let the execs reflect more on the most important points of starting a company than the specific program goals in mind. Building companies these days takes some newfound ingenuity, and it’s important to share these points with everyone.

There are some other trends you’ll see reflected in the stories below. The intersection of biotech and Big Pharma is taking on a different tone at times, with an eye to assembling large networks of experts to tackle complex problems. And the inflow of billions of dollars of fresh investment capital allows for a new breed of startup conspiring to sire transformative therapies. That’s not cheap, and success is not guaranteed. But it is always fascinating.

Let me sum up here by noting that the biggest healthcare crisis in 100 years has helped make biotech the place to be, fortunately for all of us. These companies aren’t squandering the opportunity. And that deserves a special shout out all on its own.

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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.

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.

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.

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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