Vik Bajaj (Foresite)

Ex­clu­sive: Vik Ba­jaj set out al­most 2 years ago to hatch new com­pa­nies that would shake up health­care with da­ta sci­ence. Here are 5 di­rec­tions he's tak­ing at Fore­site Labs

If it was clear in late 2019 that the US health­care sys­tem is poised for trans­for­ma­tion, Vik Ba­jaj be­lieves the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic rammed the gas ped­al by lay­ing bare the “fun­da­men­tal in­ef­fi­cien­cies and in­equal­i­ties.”

Take, for in­stance, the idea that the most cost-ef­fec­tive way to treat dis­ease is to catch it ear­ly. That was the mis­sion at Grail, the high-fly­ing can­cer de­tec­tion start­up that he had been CSO of. But at Fore­site, where he’s now man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, they ex­pect­ed wide­spread em­pha­sis on pre­ven­ta­tive care would take about a decade to achieve — as with many of the changes in busi­ness mod­els that they were hop­ing for.

“It’s hap­pen­ing far more quick­ly than I would ever have guessed a few years ago,” he said.

The oth­er dif­fer­ence? Fore­site Labs, the in­cu­ba­tor that he has been spear­head­ing, is now home to five fledg­ling com­pa­nies that would test out some of the oth­er big ideas Ba­jaj and his col­leagues be­lieve would fill crit­i­cal gaps in the health­care sys­tem. And they’ve as­sem­bled a dream team of en­tre­pre­neurs in res­i­dence as well as sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­sors to re­fine those star­tups us­ing the datasets and tools on the nascent plat­form.

With the ex­cep­tion of one, the com­pa­nies are all still in stealth mode. But in an in­ter­view with End­points News, Ba­jaj of­fered a look be­hind the cur­tain of what they are work­ing on.

Ses­ti­na Bio, the on­ly com­pa­ny that’s launched, is a syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy play­er aim­ing to cre­ate sus­tain­able sources for chem­i­cals and ma­te­ri­als through “high-through­put, high-de­f­i­n­i­tion sin­gle cell ex­per­i­ments” in com­bi­na­tion with ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms.

Then there are two sep­a­rate ef­forts to take pre­ci­sion med­i­cines out­side of on­col­o­gy — one to au­toim­mune dis­eases and an­oth­er to car­diometa­bol­ic dis­or­ders. A fourth com­pa­ny seeks to map the “pro­tein in­ter­ac­tome” and mod­u­late the way pro­teins in­ter­act with one an­oth­er, while the last is work­ing on col­lat­ing re­al-time, re­al-world da­ta.

Ba­jaj high­light­ed three sea­soned biotech ex­ecs who are help­ing run these ven­tures: June Lee, who helped steer a heart drug tar­get­ed at a ge­net­i­cal­ly de­fined pa­tient pop­u­la­tion as chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer at MyoKar­dia (now part of Bris­tol My­ers Squibb); Zach Sweeney, the for­mer De­nali CSO who brings chem­istry ex­per­tise; and Doug Fos­ter, founder of health da­ta ag­gre­ga­tion provider Ve­r­ana Health.

Mov­ing for­ward, he en­vi­sions cre­at­ing a cou­ple of com­pa­nies a year.

“Start­ing 5 com­pa­nies in 18 months has been very in­tense and we’re un­like­ly to start that many at that pace,” Ba­jaj said. “What we con­tin­ue to look for are en­tre­pre­neurs in res­i­dence who want to change this part of the world, change the health­care sys­tem and have the am­bi­tion to be on a plat­form like that. That’s what’s re­al­ly go­ing to gate the num­ber of com­pa­nies that we cre­ate — it’s in find­ing those good re­la­tion­ships and peo­ple who re­al­ly want to adopt some­thing as their mis­sion or come to us with ideas that they think we can help with.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.

Jay Bradner (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Div­ing deep­er in­to in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­or­ders, No­var­tis gob­bles up an­oth­er bite-sized op­to­ge­net­ics biotech

Right about a year ago, a Novartis team led by Jay Bradner and Cynthia Grosskreutz at NIBR swooped in to scoop up a Cambridge, MA-based opthalmology gene therapy company called Vedere. Their focus was on a specific market niche: inherited retinal dystrophies that include a wide range of genetic retinal disorders marked by the loss of photoreceptor cells and progressive vision loss.

But that was just the first deal that whet their appetite.

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Lat­est news: It’s a no on uni­ver­sal boost­ers; Pa­tient death stuns gene ther­a­py field; In­side Tril­li­um’s $2.3B turn­around; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

Next week is shaping up to be a busy one, as our editor-in-chief John Carroll and managing editor Kyle Blankenship lead back-to-back discussions with a great group of experts to discuss the weekend news and trends. John will be spending 30 minutes with Jake Van Naarden, the CEO of Lilly Oncology, and Kyle has a brilliant panel lined up: Harvard’s Cigall Kadoch, Susan Galbraith, the new head of cancer R&D at AstraZeneca, Roy Baynes at Merck, and James Christensen at Mirati. Don’t miss out on the action — sign up here.

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