Vik Bajaj. Foresite Labs

Vik Ba­jaj un­veils Fore­site's new in­cu­ba­tor, look­ing to hatch fu­ture gi­ants cross­ing tech and health­care

When it comes to har­ness­ing da­ta for health­care and the life sci­ences, a rich in­fra­struc­ture of ex­pan­sive da­ta col­lect­ed and mea­sured with the right tools are es­sen­tial to un­cov­er new in­sights and ad­vance new prod­ucts. And to build that, you need ac­cess to di­verse tal­ents backed by a pa­tient in­vestor.

Jim Tanan­baum

Just ask Vik Ba­jaj. The for­mer UC Berke­ley re­searcher first left acad­e­mia for Ver­i­ly, Google’s for­ay in­to life sci­ences, where he saw the meth­ods of mar­ry­ing com­pu­ta­tion and bi­ol­o­gy were near­ing ma­tu­ri­ty. Af­ter a few years as CSO there he moved on to Grail work­ing to­wards the ear­ly de­tec­tion of can­cer — an­oth­er da­ta in­ten­sive en­deav­or — be­fore land­ing his cur­rent role as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Fore­site Cap­i­tal.

Yet in spite of all the progress he’s seen and helped prop­a­gate, it’s not quite there yet. There is still a gap be­tween what’s cur­rent­ly avail­able and what he sees as a trans­for­ma­tion in health­care en­abled by the in­for­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion.

“Re­al­ly what we per­ceive — and ob­vi­ous­ly I’m not alone in stat­ing this — is that there is an eco­nom­ic cri­sis in our health­care sys­tem where we are spend­ing so much of our na­tion­al prod­uct on health­care and yet we have out­comes that are ac­tu­al­ly in de­cline in many pop­u­la­tions,” Ba­jaj told End­points News. “And we think that there are many ways to make that in­dus­try more ef­fi­cient and more re­spon­sive to the needs of its pa­tients, but ob­vi­ous­ly this idea of us­ing da­ta sci­ence, the pow­er of mea­sure­ments, of un­der­stand­ing of ex­per­i­ments is fun­da­men­tal to gen­er­at­ing re­li­able ev­i­dence that will solve some of these large health­care prob­lems.”

The no­tion is what spurred him and Fore­site CEO Jim Tanan­baum to launch Fore­site Labs, an en­tre­pre­neur­ial in­cu­ba­tor de­signed to nur­ture some of the foun­da­tion­al com­pa­nies at the nexus of da­ta sci­ence and health­care.

Fore­site Labs re­moves three of the biggest bar­ri­ers for star­tups in this space, ac­cord­ing to Ba­jaj: It of­fers a pool of pub­lic and pro­pri­etary datasets, which would be ex­pen­sive for any one com­pa­ny to gen­er­ate; an analy­sis plat­form con­sist­ing of the lead­ing tools to aid with clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of da­ta; as well as a sea­soned team of 20-plus — be­tween the Boston and San Fran­cis­co of­fices — to of­fer sci­en­tif­ic, tech­ni­cal and busi­ness sup­port. As part of that, they al­so hook com­pa­nies up with part­ners for re­sources such as lab space.

Cor­re­spond­ing­ly, he sees three types of ven­tures that would ben­e­fit the most from their in­cu­ba­tion — and that they would be most in­ter­est­ed in.

The first in­volves ther­a­peu­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties cen­tered around func­tion­al ge­nomics; the sec­ond group build the in­fra­struc­ture need­ed for clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment us­ing re­al-world ev­i­dence; the third cat­e­go­ry would look in­to per­son­al­ized health­care de­liv­ery based on in­di­vid­ual as­sess­ment of dis­ease risk.

Out­side of these high lev­el de­tails, though, he’s let­ting lit­tle else slip about what Fore­site Labs has been work­ing on over the past year. The cap­i­tal Fore­site has to de­ploy, the num­ber of ven­tures they would back at any one time, the ca­pa­bil­i­ties they are con­sid­er­ing adding — these are all stay­ing un­der wraps.

One thing we know, though, is that Fore­site has plen­ty of fire­pow­er and pa­tience to seed com­pa­nies where they see po­ten­tial. Last May the firm closed its fourth fund at a record $668 mil­lion and vowed to beef up their ma­chine learn­ing chops to en­able bet­ter in­vest­ment de­ci­sions.

“We’re get­ting in­to this area where we be­lieve through long ex­pe­ri­ence has tremen­dous po­ten­tial,” he said. “But it’s a po­ten­tial that will be re­al­ized rough­ly over the next decade. […] That means that we’re go­ing to be ini­tial­ly very mea­sured in what we do, and very de­lib­er­ate in launch­ing a few high qual­i­ty com­pa­nies with­out putting num­bers or tar­gets on it.”

The team of ex­perts they’ve re­cruit­ed to Fore­site Labs, he added, should prove to be the great­est as­set over the long run. They in­clude:

  • Alex Block­er, head of da­ta sci­ence (for­mer­ly of Grail and Ver­i­ly)
  • Rick Dewey, head of ge­nomics dis­cov­ery (for­mer­ly of the Re­gen­eron Ge­net­ics Cen­ter)
  • Damien Soghoian, head of op­er­a­tions and strat­e­gy (for­mer­ly of Ver­i­ly)
  • Paul Da Sil­va Jar­dine, head of drug dis­cov­ery (for­mer­ly of Pfiz­er)

On top of that, he’s as­sem­bled a star-stud­ded sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board fea­tur­ing Math­ai Mam­men of J&J, Pao­la Ar­lot­ta of Har­vard, Eu­an Ash­ley of Stan­ford, Calum MacRae of Brigham and Women’s Hos­pi­tal, Steve Finkbein­er of Glad­stone, Jeff Hu­ber and Alex Ar­a­va­nis of Grail, as well as Rus­lan Medzhi­tov of the Howard Hugh­es Med­ical In­sti­tute.

“Ob­vi­ous­ly it will be an area that will be much big­ger than what Fore­site Labs does, but I think that we are a lit­tle bit ahead and so poised to have a huge in­flu­ence over the trans­for­ma­tion,” Ba­jaj said.

Late Fri­day ap­proval; Trio of biotechs wind down; Stem cell pi­o­neer finds new fron­tier; Biotech icon to re­tire; 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.

I hope your weekend is off to a nice start, wherever you are reading this email. As for me, I’m trying to catch the tail of the Lunar New Year festivities.

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Pfiz­er lays off em­ploy­ees at Cal­i­for­nia and Con­necti­cut sites

Pfizer has laid off employees at its La Jolla, CA, and Groton, CT sites, according to multiple LinkedIn posts from former employees.

The Big Pharma confirmed to Endpoints News it has let go of some employees, but a spokesperson declined to specify how many workers were impacted and the exact locations affected. Earlier this month, the drug developer had confirmed to Endpoints it was sharpening its focus and doing away with some early research on areas such as rare disease, oncology and gene therapies.

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Jake Van Naarden, Loxo@Lilly CEO

Lil­ly en­ters ripe BTK field with quick FDA nod in man­tle cell lym­phoma

Eli Lilly has succeeded in its attempt to get the first non-covalent version of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase, or BTK, inhibitors to market, pushing it past rival Merck.

The FDA gave an accelerated nod to Lilly’s daily oral med, to be sold as Jaypirca, for patients with relapsed or refractory mantle cell lymphoma.

The agency’s green light, disclosed by the Indianapolis Big Pharma on Friday afternoon, catapults Lilly into a field dominated by covalent BTK inhibitors, which includes AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson’s Imbruvica, AstraZeneca’s Calquence and BeiGene’s Brukinsa.

Tony Johnson, Goldfinch Bio CEO (Goldfinch via YouTube)

Kid­ney dis­ease drug­mak­er Goldfinch Bio shuts down

Goldfinch Bio, attempting to make treatments for kidney diseases and diabetic nephropathy, is shutting down.

President and CEO Tony Johnson confirmed to Endpoints News Friday afternoon that the biotech shut down after “fundraising challenges in the current macro-environment.” Fierce Biotech first reported the news.

Johnson, who joined in 2017 after a stint as SVP of early clinical development at AstraZeneca, said in a text that the company “entered the ABC process recently,” referring to an assignment for the benefit of the creditors, which provides a different wind-down avenue than a bankruptcy.

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Filip Dubovsky, Novavax CMO

No­vavax gets ready to take an­oth­er shot at Covid vac­cine mar­ket with next sea­son plans

While mRNA took center stage at yesterday’s FDA vaccine advisory committee meeting, Novavax announced its plans to deliver an updated protein-based vaccine based on new guidance.

Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) members voted unanimously in favor of “harmonizing” Covid vaccine compositions, meaning all future vaccine recipients would receive a bivalent vaccine, regardless of whether they’ve gotten their primary series.

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Eliot Forster, F-star CEO (Rachel Kiki for Endpoints News)

F-star gets down to the wire with $161M sale to Chi­nese buy­er as na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty con­cerns linger

With the clock ticking on F-star Therapeutics’ takeover by a Chinese buyer, the companies are still scrambling to remove a hold on the deal from the US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

F-star and invoX Pharma said they are “actively negotiating” with CFIUS “about the terms of a mitigation agreement to address CFIUS’s concerns regarding potential national security risks posed by the transaction.”

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CBER Director Peter Marks (Susan Walsh/AP Images)

FDA ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee votes unan­i­mous­ly in fa­vor of bi­va­lent Covid shots re­plac­ing pri­ma­ry se­ries

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) voted unanimously in favor of “harmonizing” Covid vaccine compositions, meaning all current vaccine recipients would receive a bivalent vaccine, regardless of whether they’ve gotten their primary series.

The vote marks an effort to clear up confusion around varying formulations and dosing schedules for current primary series and booster vaccines, as well as “get closer to the strains that are circulating,” according to committee member Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

In­vestor 'misalign­men­t' leads to tR­NA biotech's shut­ter­ing

A small biotech looking to carve a lane in the tRNA field has folded, an investor and a co-founder confirmed to Endpoints News.

Similar to Flagship’s Alltrna and other upstarts like Takeda-backed hC Bioscience, the now-shuttered Theonys was attempting to go after transfer RNA, seen as a potential Swiss Army knife in the broader RNA therapeutics space. The idea is that one tRNA drug could be used across a galaxy of disorders and diseases.

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Elon Musk (GDA via AP Images)

Neu­ralink em­ploy­ees cite lay­offs at Elon Musk’s brain-com­put­er in­ter­face start­up

At least two Neuralink employees have posted to LinkedIn in recent days saying they’ve been laid off from Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface startup, which has received backlash for animal testing.

A former staffer working on preclinical study design and an ex-lab director working on assessing the safety of Neuralink’s implanted devices (prior to human testing) announced recently they’d been laid off, specifically using that terminology. Both had worked at the startup for at least two years.

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