Markus Enzelberger (Versant)

Ver­sant woos Mor­phoSys' ex-CSO to its boom­ing dis­cov­ery en­gine, with big plans for new star­tups

As Mor­phoSys cel­e­brat­ed the FDA’s ac­cep­tance of its first-ever BLA — com­plete with a pri­or­i­ty re­view that could lead to a quick OK for its CD19-tar­get­ed CAR-T ri­val — last Mon­day, for­mer CSO Markus En­zel­berg­er was mark­ing a dif­fer­ent mile­stone of his own.

It was his first day at Ver­sant Ven­tures’ dis­cov­ery en­gine in Basel, a change of scenery af­ter 18 years as the Ger­man biotech’s chief sci­en­tist. New­ly named en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence of Ridge­line Ther­a­peu­tics, En­zel­berg­er ex­pects to spend half of his time eval­u­at­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for com­pa­ny cre­ation and the oth­er half help­ing biotech fledg­lings in the port­fo­lio build the nec­es­sary in­fra­struc­ture.

“I’m a tech­nol­o­gy guy,” he said. “I’ve al­ways been get­ting new tech­nolo­gies off the ground.”

Woo­ing En­zel­berg­er was part of the growth Ver­sant has in mind for Ridge­line. Guid­ed by Alex May­weg — a Basel-based part­ner who’s just been pro­mot­ed to man­ag­ing di­rec­tor — the 3-year-old op­er­a­tion has al­ready seen its first spin­out, Black Di­a­mond Ther­a­peu­tics, make a $200 mil­lion Nas­daq de­but and hot start to 2020.

En­zel­berg­er al­so re­places Rober­to Ia­cone, the EIR who was in­volved in Black Di­a­mond but has de­camped for Ar­ix Bio­science in Lon­don.

Brad Bol­zon

The team of sci­en­tists work­ing in the wet labs will grow from 40 to 60 by 2022, which will help dou­ble the com­pa­ny build­ing ca­pac­i­ty from 1 to 2 per year.

“It’s very im­por­tant to us that we’re one of the few US ven­ture firms that are ful­ly em­bed­ded in Eu­rope for well over a decade,” said Brad Bol­zon, Ver­sant chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor.

While Basel — home to No­var­tis and Roche — has long been known for its sup­ply of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal tal­ent and ac­cess to world-class aca­d­e­m­ic re­search, the spir­it of en­tre­pre­neuri­al­ism didn’t start grow­ing un­til re­cent­ly.

Two new Ridge­line star­tups are al­ready in the works: Monte Rosa works with lead­ing re­searchers of cere­blon re­pro­gram­ming from Lon­don and Basel to de­vel­op pro­tein degra­da­tion ther­a­pies, while Bright Peak Ther­a­peu­tics boasts of a chem­istry-en­abled plat­form that “gives us con­trol to make what­ev­er mod­i­fi­ca­tions we want, wher­ev­er we want to on the pro­tein back­bone,” ac­cord­ing to man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Tom Woi­wode.

Tom Woi­wode

“Brad and I still re­mem­ber when we went over there and opened up that of­fice in Basel to try to ini­ti­ate our Eu­ro­pean in­vest­ment prac­tice, most peo­ple told us we were nuts,” Woi­wode said.

But Ver­sant now be­lieves it’s proved the doubters wrong, so much so that Woi­wode can safe­ly put the Basel of­fice in May­weg’s hands and re­lo­cate back to the West Coast, which Bol­zon still views as their an­chor re­gion.

They’re al­so mak­ing a move in the buzzing hub of Boston, where Markus War­muth — the for­mer CEO of H3 Bio­med­i­cine and one-time en­tre­pre­neur-in-res­i­dence at Third Rock Ven­tures — has been work­ing as a ven­ture part­ner. War­muth is al­so the CEO of Monte Rosa and will help move the com­pa­ny to the city.

Mean­while at In­cep­tion — the US equiv­a­lent of Ridge­line — Ver­sant has tapped Richard Glynne as CSO of the San Diego site, en­trust­ing him with key re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in launch­ing an­oth­er pro­tein degra­da­tion play­er. Dubbed Ly­cia Ther­a­peu­tics, the biotech will lever­age dis­cov­er­ies by Stan­ford’s Car­olyn Bertozzi around ex­tra­cel­lu­lar pro­teins. In Mon­tre­al, Marce­lo Bi­gal is tak­ing the helm of in­nate im­mu­ni­ty-fo­cused Ven­tus Ther­a­peu­tics.

Alex May­weg

All of it points to the im­por­tance of com­pa­ny cre­ation, Bol­zon said, which cur­rent­ly ac­counts for 30% of its in­vest­ments but is ex­pect­ed to go over 50%. Com­pared to the 5.2X av­er­age re­turn mul­ti­ple among all of its 16 ex­its, Ver­sant-launched en­ti­ties de­liv­ered 7.1X av­er­age re­turn.

“Our mod­el is three-fold: go­ing af­ter break­through sci­ence, hav­ing the ge­o­graph­ic reach to source the best op­por­tu­ni­ties wher­ev­er they can be iden­ti­fied, and num­ber 3, hav­ing these unique com­pa­ny cre­ation ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” he added. The new moves are “en­tire­ly con­sis­tent with just build­ing off that.”

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.