Two more big pharma vets at Roche, AstraZeneca make the leap to top biotech R&D jobs as the great migration continues

A pair of prominent biotech poachers have claimed two more marquee names from the ranks of big pharma R&D.

Omar Khwaja

David Berman, who until recently was head of I/O research at AstraZeneca, has been bumped up to the top job in R&D at Immunocore, the TCR biotech which recently recruited MedImmune chief Bahija Jallal as CEO. And Omar Khwaja has jumped from his post as global head of Roche’s neuroscience translational medicine group as well as rare diseases to Voyager $VYGR, where he’ll be CMO.

Berman is a well known player in oncology R&D and comes with credentials that includes a lengthy stint alongside his new CEO at Immunocore, which specializes in TCR work. Berman actually joined Immunocore, which is looking to reestablish its rep as a leader in its field worthy of a hefty unicorn valuation, last September. He took over the lead role for the company’s top program for the late-stage effort on IMCgp100.

Biotech observers may recall that Bristol-Myers sued Berman back in 2015, trying to force him to the sidelines for a year rather than let him make the leap straight to AstraZeneca.

Immunocore has been undergoing a year-long transition period after CEO Eliot Forster left. Forster encountered some major headwinds when he tried to raise a new round of $300 million-plus for the biotech, and pretty much the entire top team exited soon after.

Berman left AstraZeneca ahead of a major revamp that also included the departure of company CMO Sean Bohen as ex-MSK star José Baselga was brought in to run the cancer research ops at the pharma giant under CEO Pascal Soriot. Mene Pangalos landed the other top R&D job at the company, notably after his name surfaced as a contender for the throne once Soriot makes an exit.

Khwaja is a gene therapy expert. His work at Roche involved creating new gene therapy programs for a list of rare diseases, including spinal muscular atrophy as well as Huntington’s disease. And he’ll put that expertise to work now for Voyager, which has been struggling with a lead program on Parkinson’s.

The latest word from Voyager was that the FDA had cooled to the notion of using their Phase II study as a pivotal trial sufficient for an approval, shifting to the view that it’s really an exploratory effort. In response, the biotech noted a few days ago that it will add patients to the Phase II and run a parallel Phase III in order to give regulators data from two well controlled studies — the industry gold standard on data.

The migration from pharma giant to little biotech has been transforming the field for a few years now. But why can’t pharma hold on to its top players? As we’ve seen with the CEOs making the shift, these smaller companies have a lot more latitude when it comes to compensation packages. You often hear about these execs’ preference to leave the big bureaucracies behind. And a potential score with a new big drug, alongside the ever present possibility of a buyout, has also conspired to make biotech a more exciting place to be — for now.

Image: David Berman at Endpoints News event, 2018. JEFF RUMANS, ENDPOINTS NEWS

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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