People, Venture Capital

Top JPMorgan investment banker brings his talents — and connections — to the biotech startup crew on board Flagship

Stephen Berenson had a 33-year run at JPMorgan before he stepped out as vice chairman of investment banking at the beginning of the year. By his own account, the 57-year-old had taken any number of companies public, worked any number of M&A deals.

But he wanted to do “something completely new and completely transformative.”

So today you can welcome him to the biotech world.

Berenson is Noubar Afeyan’s latest top recruit at Flagship Pioneering, the startup venture group that likes to launch 7 or 8 or 9 new platform companies a year, all of which are looking to do something new and completely transformative in biotech.

Flagship founder and CEO Noubar Afeyan

The new executive partner at Flagship joins a list of recent senior partner picks with decades of experience: David Epstein, the senior Novartis pharma exec who took the first executive partner position at Flagship in January; senior partner Jim Gilbert joined last year after stints at Bain and Boston Scientific; and Michael Rosenblatt, Merck’s chief medical officer, joined up a year ago as CMO.

“There’s a theory out there,” says Berenson, “that biotechnology will be to this century what information technology was to the last century. Flagship is at the epicenter of so many fascinating things.”

These things include messenger RNA at biotech unicorn Moderna and new cancer meds at Agios.

And that all sounds like “tremendous fun” to Berenson, who as the new executive partner will now start taking a lead role in the art of capital formation, biotech style — for Flagship as well as its growing list of portfolio biotechs, where you can expect him to start taking board roles and mentoring startup CEOs.

“What’s intriguing is how do we take this ecosystem with 7 to 9 projects a year and have it be a 10-, 20-, 30-year institution,” Afeyan tells me. Getting someone with Berenson’s experience in the tech industry fits right into that, given the way Flagship operates.

In 80% of the companies spawned by Flagship, including 35 they’re working with now, adds Afeyan, “we are founders or co-founders and we are deploying the first $40 to $50 million of capital. Our role is not buying and selling shares. We own the shares, largely capitalizing these companies like J&J capitalizes divisions, or Merck capitalizes a new program. The relationship doesn’t stay at a boardroom level. It fits a long-term partnership, to help them grow and reach their potential.”

That’s why he’s been adding these veterans from finance and Big Pharma, with a different set of skills and a long-term view of things. When I first queried Afeyan, I noted that this didn’t look like your typical new venture partner hire. His response:

“Very little of what we do is what any VC would do or does.”

Afeyan isn’t just pioneering. He’s also settling new territory for what he always hopes will be the long haul. He wants Flagship to be a player for decades to come, fostered by professionals who have spent decades to get to the top of their professions.


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EvaluatePharma World Preview 2017