Roche Vet Takes CEO Job at Boston’s Enlight Biosciences

4/12/11

Michelle Browner saw firsthand what huge challenges lie along the way to developing a new drug during her 18 years at Swiss healthcare giant Roche. Now, Xconomy has learned, she has taken the CEO job at Boston-based Enlight Biosciences, a firm that was founded to aid Big Pharma with some of its biggest research and development problems.

Browner, who was most recently global head of emerging science and technologies in Roche’s partnering group in Basel, Switzerland, seems suited to head a company supported primarily by six of the world’s largest pharmaceutical players: Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT), Eli Lilly & Co. (NYSE:LLY), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Merck & Co. (NYSE:MRK), Novartis, and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE). Browner took over as CEO of Enlight last week and has relocated to Boston.

David Steinberg, the founding CEO of Enlight and a partner at Boston-based venture firm PureTech Ventures, is continuing to serve on Enlight’s board of directors along with his other duties as a partner at PureTech.

PureTech, which specializes in building biotech startups from scratch, announced the formation of Enlight in 2008 with Eli Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer on board as financial supporters as collaborators. Enlight is somewhat unique in that, unlike biotechs formed to develop their own drugs, the company focuses on advancing core technologies that could help its pharma supporters develop new products in a more efficient and effective manner. For Browner, Enlight’s mission complements her experience in keeping Roche at the cutting edge of new technologies shaping the pharmaceutical industry.

“When I heard that Enlight was looking for a CEO, and they expressed interest in meeting me, I was thrilled and I think it was a perfect match from both of our sides,” Browner said.

Browner, 54, comes to Enlight at a time of great change in the pharmaceutical industry. Many large drug companies are shaking up the way their R&D organizations do business. The industry as a whole spent about $65 billion in 2009 on developing new products, and many companies have been pressing for ways to spend those dollars efficiently and with the greatest productivity possible.

Enlight offers ways for the drug companies to back the development of pre-competitive technologies that have the potential of benefitting all of their R&D groups, without each of them having to invest in developing those technologies themselves. Enlight has provided details on two of the companies it has formed—Endra and Entrega.

In January, Boston-based Entrega was unveiled, with big plans to develop technology to enable biological drugs to be taken orally rather than via injection, as they typically are today. Bob Langer, the famous MIT professor and drug-delivery expert, is the scientific chair of Entrega. The company could help its big pharma supporters advance oral forms of their existing injected biological drugs, potentially boosting the value and revenue potential of the products.

Ann Arbor, MI-based Endra, where PureTech’s Steinberg is now acting CEO, last year released an imaging device that incorporates qualities of both light-based and ultrasound systems for pre-clinical research. The firm is now working on an imaging device that could be used for human patients. Browner declined to disclose which of Enlight’s pharma partners are supporting both Entrega and Endra.

According to Browner, Enlight has two additional companies that are in stealth mode. Her goals for her new post include overseeing the advancement of technologies at Endra and Entrega as well as at the undisclosed companies. She indicated that there could be announcements later this year to provide details about the two top-secret firms.

At Roche, Browner, a cell biologist by training, appears to have had an impressive run. She spent 14 years of her career at the Swiss drug giant’s research facility in Palo Alto, CA, where she led the group’s efforts to access high-throughput crystallography and fragment-based screening technologies, she said. Her efforts aided in the discovery of potential drugs for inflammatory or infectious diseases, some of which have advanced to late stages of clinical trials. In 2007, she moved to Roche’s world headquarters in Basel to become global head of pharma research strategy and later took the job of global head of emerging science and technology.

While her tenure at Roche ended in February, Browner is now in a position to have an impact on the R&D engines at not one but several big drug companies.

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