When VCs hand out mega-rounds to Vir and Gos­samer, are they bet­ting on the jock­ey or the horse?

Fol­low­ing a pe­ri­od of un­prece­dent­ed re­turns for bio­phar­ma in­vestors, flush VCs are sink­ing big­ger and big­ger rounds of cash in­to com­pa­nies whose pipelines are still in their in­fan­cy. Tak­ing this trend to a new lev­el is an in­creas­ing­ly pop­u­lar move to back biotech ex­ec­u­tives who are known to be star per­form­ers with mega-rounds ris­ing north of $100 mil­lion – even if their pipelines lack a star pro­gram.

There was a time when a few mil­lion bucks would back a promis­ing as­set, and then — if the pro­gram proved worth­while — in­vestors would re­cruit a star team. But back­ing man­age­ment be­fore sci­ence is a trend that’s pick­ing up steam, ac­cord­ing to sev­er­al in­vestors I met at JP Mor­gan this year.

Ni­na Kjell­son, Canaan

Some con­sid­er these bets ex­ceed­ing­ly risky, as VCs are es­sen­tial­ly hand­ing the C-suite cash and hop­ing they dig up some­thing use­ful in re­turn. Oth­ers ar­gue the move means in­vestors are play­ing it safe with this strat­e­gy. Af­ter all, a res­olute CEO root­ing around for sev­er­al op­tions to pro­vide a re­turn may be more de­pend­able than the some­times-finicky sci­ence of a one-star pro­gram.

“It’s a clas­sic de­bate in the VC world,” said Canaan’s gen­er­al part­ner Ni­na Kjell­son. “Do we in­vest in the jock­ey or the horse?”

Com­pa­nies like ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners and Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing of­ten bet on the jock­eys.

The trend means one thing for cer­tain: in­vestors’ wal­lets are filled to the brim, and their strate­gies are chang­ing as a re­sult.

The plan, of course, is to get trust­ed lead­ers in po­si­tions where they can de­liv­er one (or hope­ful­ly many) re­turn. This has evolved in­to a busi­ness mod­el in which an um­brel­la com­pa­ny finds promis­ing as­sets to ad­vance, and then spins them out in­to sep­a­rate en­ti­ties to see if the sci­ence sinks or swims. That way, one fail­ure doesn’t tank the whole en­ter­prise and the vet­er­an ex­ec­u­tives can dri­ve on.

When your re­sume war­rants mega-rounds

George Scan­gos

We saw this re­cent­ly with the eye-pop­ping fi­nan­cial back­ing of Vir Biotech­nol­o­gy, which went from launch to rais­ing over a half-bil­lion in seed mon­ey in its first year. In­vestors are bank­ing on a vet­er­an ex­ec­u­tive team that in­cludes CEO George Scan­gos, the for­mer boss at Bio­gen and Ex­elix­is.

Then there was the re­cent deal with Gos­samer Bio, a start­up led by two for­mer Re­cep­tos ex­ec­u­tives that emerged ear­li­er this month with $100 mil­lion in seed mon­ey. The com­pa­ny is be­ing tight-lipped about what as­sets they al­ready have, but we do know the plan is to snatch up ear­ly- and late-stage as­sets and de­vel­op them un­der spin­out en­ti­ties.

To some de­gree, De­nali fits in this pic­ture, too. The com­pa­ny’s pipeline is chalk-full of pre­clin­i­cal as­sets, and yet the com­pa­ny raised mega-rounds to get start­ed and then scored a $287 mil­lion IPO.

In­vestors shore up risk by bet­ting on re­peat teams

Jay Lichter, Aval­on

Jay Lichter, man­ag­ing part­ner at Aval­on Ven­tures, said he sees this as a risk re­duc­tion strat­e­gy on the part of the in­vestor.

“It re­duces risk a lot when you’re back­ing a group who’s proven to ex­e­cute on pro­grams,” Lichter said. “Give them a bunch of mon­ey, toss them a few pro­grams, and the chance that all will fail is close to ze­ro. One will turn in­to a ven­ture re­turn.”

Both Lichter and seed stage in­vestor Wal­ter Moos of Shang­Phar­ma agreed that the trend is an in­di­ca­tion of in­vestors with heavy pock­ets.

Wal­ter Moos, Shang­Phar­ma

“This is prob­a­bly one of the most di­verse fi­nan­cial ecosys­tems I’ve seen in my 35 years in the in­dus­try,” Moos said. “[VCs] need to in­vest more mon­ey per as­set be­cause they have so much more cap­i­tal to de­ploy. There’s a lim­it on how many com­pa­nies the part­ners can han­dle, so the deal size gets big­ger.”

It’s al­so pos­si­ble that VC firms are di­ver­si­fy­ing, Lichter said. In­vestors might con­sid­er vet­er­an-led teams as more ma­ture ven­tures that de­serve pri­vate eq­ui­ty-sized deals in­stead of VC-sized deals.

Big bets or pub­lic­i­ty play?

Are mega-rounds for nascent pipelines smart? Kjell­son said she’s not a big fan of huge seed rounds, even if the team is ex­pe­ri­enced.

“I’m a lit­tle bit more sober these days to make a bet on a team with a $100 mil­lion check ver­sus a $10 mil­lion to $15 mil­lion check,” Kjell­son said.

Of course, many of these deals are mile­stone gat­ed, she says, and as Moos points out, “like biobucks, lots of that mon­ey nev­er shows up.” Moos thinks these mega-sized rounds can some­times be a play for pub­lic­i­ty.

“It can draw more top man­age­ment, co-in­vestors, or even grab the at­ten­tion of Big Phar­ma,” Moos said.

Lichter tends to agree with Kjell­son. He says too much mon­ey in the bank makes biotechs slug­gish as they be­gin to op­er­ate like a “small big phar­ma, with all the bu­reau­cra­cy and po­lit­i­cal struc­ture.”

“I’ve nev­er been a fan of big fi­nanc­ing,” Lichter said. “I think it draws you away from what’s great about biotech, which is be­ing nim­ble. Be­ing close to death. It’s shock­ing how hard peo­ple will work when they have six months of cash and they have to get to work to stay alive.”


Il­lus­tra­tion: Shut­ter­stock

De­vel­op­ment of the Next Gen­er­a­tion NKG2D CAR T-cell Man­u­fac­tur­ing Process

Celyad’s view on developing and delivering a CAR T-cell therapy with multi-tumor specificity combined with cell manufacturing success
Overview
Transitioning potential therapeutic assets from academia into the commercial environment is an exercise that is largely underappreciated by stakeholders, except for drug developers themselves. The promise of preclinical or early clinical results drives enthusiasm, but the pragmatic delivery of a therapy outside of small, local testing is most often a major challenge for drug developers especially, including among other things, the manufacturing challenges that surround the production of just-in-time and personalized autologous cell therapy products.

Paul Hudson, Getty Images

UP­DAT­ED: Sanofi CEO Hud­son lays out new R&D fo­cus — chop­ping di­a­betes, car­dio and slash­ing $2B-plus costs in sur­gi­cal dis­sec­tion

Earlier on Monday, new Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson baited the hook on his upcoming strategy presentation Tuesday with a tell-tale deal to buy Synthorx for $2.5 billion. That fits squarely with hints that he’s pointing the company to a bigger future in oncology, which also squares with a major industry tilt.

In a big reveal later in the day, though, Hudson offered a slate of stunners on his plans to surgically dissect and reassemble the portfoloio, saying that the company is dropping cardio and diabetes research — which covers two of its biggest franchise arenas. Sanofi missed the boat on developing new diabetes drugs, and now it’s pulling out entirely. As part of the pullback, it’s dropping efpeglenatide, their once-weekly GLP-1 injection for diabetes.

“To be out of cardiovascular and diabetes is not easy for a company like ours with an incredibly proud history,” Hudson said on a call with reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal. “As tough a choice as that is, we’re making that choice.”

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Roger Perlmutter, Merck

#ASH19: Here’s why Mer­ck is pay­ing $2.7B to­day to grab Ar­Qule and its next-gen BTK drug, lin­ing up Eli Lil­ly ri­val­ry

Just a few months after making a splash at the European Hematology Association scientific confab with an early snapshot of positive data for their BTK inhibitor ARQ 531, ArQule has won a $2.7 billion buyout deal from Merck.

Merck is scooping up a next-gen BTK drug — which is making a splash at ASH today — from ArQule in an M&A pact set at $20 a share $ARQL. That’s more than twice Friday’s $9.66 close. And Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter heralded a deal that nets “multiple clinical-stage oral kinase inhibitors.”

This is the second biotech buyout pact today, marking a brisk tempo of M&A deals in the lead-up to the big JP Morgan gathering in mid-January. It’s no surprise the acquisitions are both for cancer drugs, where Sanofi will try to make its mark while Merck beefs up a stellar oncology franchise. And bolt-ons are all the rage at the major pharma players, which you could also see in Novartis’ recent $9.7 billion MedCo buyout.

ArQule — which comes out on top after their original lead drug foundered in Phase III — highlighted early data on ‘531 at EHA from a group of 6 chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients who got the 65 mg dose. Four of them experienced a partial response — a big advance for a company that failed with earlier attempts.

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Paul Hudson, Sanofi

Paul Hud­son promis­es a bright new fu­ture at Sanofi, kick­ing loose me-too drugs and fo­cus­ing on land­mark ad­vances. But can he de­liv­er?

Paul Hudson was on a mission Tuesday morning as he stood up to address Sanofi’s new R&D and business strategy.

Still fresh into the job, the new CEO set out to convince his audience — including the legions of nervous staffers inevitably devoting much of their day to listening in — that the pharma giant is shedding the layers of bureaucracy that had held them back from making progress in the past, dropping the duds in the pipeline and reprioritizing a more narrow set of experimental drugs that were promised as first-in-class or best-in-class.  The company, he added, is now positioned to “go after other opportunities” that could offer a transformational approach to treating its core diseases.

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Am­gen puts its foot down in shiny new South San Fran­cis­co hub as it re­or­ga­nizes R&D ops

Amgen has signed up to be AbbVie’s neighbor in South San Francisco as it moves into a nine-story R&D facility in the booming biotech hub.

The arrangement gives Amgen 240,000 square feet of space on the Gateway of Pacific Campus, just a few minutes drive from its current digs at Oyster Point. The new hub will open in 2022 and house the big biotech’s Bay Area employees working on cardiometabolic, inflammation and oncology research.

Ab­b­Vie, Scripps ex­pand part­ner­ship, for­ti­fy fo­cus on can­cer drugs

Scripps and AbbVie go way back. Research conducted in the lab of Scripps scientist Richard Lerner led to the discovery of Humira. The antibody, approved by the FDA in 2002 and sold by AbbVie, went on to become the world’s bestselling treatment. In 2018, the drugmaker and the non-profit organization signed a pact focused on developing cancer treatments — and now, the scope of that partnership has broadened to encompass a range of diseases, including immunological and neurological conditions.

South Ko­rea jails 3 Sam­sung ex­ecs for de­stroy­ing ev­i­dence in Bi­o­Log­ics probe

Three Samsung executives in Korea are going to jail.

The convictions came in what prosecutors had billed as “biggest crime of evidence destruction in the history of South Korea”: a case of alleged corporate intrigue that was thrown open when investigators found what was hidden beneath the floor of a Samsung BioLogics plant. Eight employees in total were found guilty of evidence tampering and the three executives were each sentenced to up to two years in prison.

Nick Plugis, Avak Kahvejian, Cristina Rondinone, Milind Kamkolkar and Chad Nusbaum. (Cellarity)

Cel­lar­i­ty, Flag­ship's $50M bet on net­work bi­ol­o­gy, mar­ries ma­chine learn­ing and sin­gle-cell tech for drug dis­cov­ery

Cellarity started with a simple — but far from easy — idea that Avak Kahvejian and his team were floating around at Flagship Pioneering: to digitally encode a cell.

As he and his senior associate Nick Plugis dug deeper into the concept, they found that most of the models others have developed take a bottom-up approach, where they assemble the molecules inside cells and the connections between them from scratch. What if they opt for a top-down approach, aided by single-cell transcriptomics and machine learning, to gauge the behavior of the entire cellular network?

Left top to right: Mark Timney, Alex Denner, Vas Narasimhan. (The Medicines Company, Getty, AP/Endpoints News)

In a play-by-play of the $9.7B Med­Co buy­out, No­var­tis ad­mits it over­paid while of­fer­ing a huge wind­fall to ex­ecs

A month into his tenure at The Medicines Company, new CEO Mark Timney reached out to then-Novartis pharma chief Paul Hudson: Any interest in a partnership?

No, Hudson told him. Not now, at least.

Ten months later, Hudson had left to run Sanofi and Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan was paying $9.7 billion for the one-drug biotech – the largest in the string of acquisitions Narasimhan has signed since his 2017 appointment.

The deal was the product of an activist investor and his controversial partner working through nearly a year of cat-and-mouse negotiations to secure a deal with Big Pharma’s most expansionist executive. It represented a huge bet in a cardiovascular field that already saw two major busts in recent years and brought massive returns for two of the industry’s most eye-raising names.

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