Stéphane Bancel, Former bioMérieux CEO, Talks Future of Startups, Diagnostics, Pharma
Amid all the comings and goings and CEOs changing jobs in the past week—see Rick Reidy of Progress Software (NASDAQ: PRGS), Mara Aspinall of On-Q-ity, and others—one person flew under the radar in Boston.
He is Stéphane Bancel, and until last month he was the CEO of bioMérieux, the microbiology and diagnostics firm based in France. Don’t let the French accent (and fashion sense) fool you, though. Bancel is a Boston guy, he’s been in town since 2007, and he’s here to stay—which is a big deal for the biotech community.
Last week, for example, BG Medicine (NASDAQ: BGMD), a Waltham, MA-based diagnostics company, said it appointed Bancel executive chairman of its board of directors. Bancel also serves as chairman of Cambridge, MA-based Knome, a personal genomics startup co-founded by Harvard’s George Church, which raised some new money this week. (bioMérieux is an investor in Knome.) Bancel is also involved with Cambridge-based ModeRNA, a stealthy therapeutics startup backed by Flagship Ventures.
Bancel had been chief executive of bioMérieux since the beginning of 2007. The billion-dollar company, which has been around since 1963, specializes in molecular diagnostic systems for healthcare, food safety, and industrial applications—like detecting salmonella in food preparation areas or bacterial infections acquired in hospitals. The firm has about 1,500 workers in the U.S., including a small office in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.
“After five years I wanted to move to the startup world,” Bancel told me this week.
Beyond that, Bancel hasn’t said much specifically about his future plans. Bancel is the kind of guy who’s involved in dozens of far-flung projects, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he spent the next part of his career focused on a new startup at the intersection of diagnostics and pharmaceuticals. (He worked for drug giant Eli Lilly from 2000 to 2006.)
Last month, before he left bioMérieux, he sat down with me to talk about the future of diagnostics, and I got the sense that that’s where his heart is. Molecular diagnostics is evolving rapidly, he said, thanks to faster and cheaper genetic sequencing and analysis and new testing approaches. And it’s changing the whole business, he said.
As Bancel put it, diagnostics used to be (and to some extent still is) a “me too” business, full of commoditized offerings from many companies. It also used to require scale—a big testing platform to do lots of similar tests, employing lots of scientists and staff. But now diagnostics is moving “closer to a pharma business,” he said. What’s more, he thinks advances in diagnostics and life sciences together will “transform pharma”—something we’ll start to see within five years, he said.
He gave a couple of examples, citing local companies he’s involved with. “The first trend is you have companies, like BG Medicine, that by developing research done in academic centers, bring to market new content information that changes how we think about disease and how we stratify patients,” he said. “For me, the big change in personalized medicine is not that Pfizer is going to develop a drug for you or me, it’s the understanding of who’s going to respond to the drug, at what dose, and what side effect. And putting patients in sub-buckets of profile. That’s the piece that’s really happening as we speak, and the pace is increasing.”
The second trend is being driven by underlying technology, he said. “There are some fields of diagnostics where if you look at the last 10 years, there has not been progress. The best example is septicemia [blood poisoning]. The standard of care today is exactly the same as in 2000.” (It takes 24 to 48 hours to know the results of a test for a blood infection.) “I know entrepreneurs who have started companies, knowing nothing about diagnostics, just because they lost someone close, or they came very close to losing a kid or a spouse to sepsis, and could not believe that in the 21st century, when you can put someone on the moon and do incredible things from a science standpoint, you’d have to wait 24 to 48 hours to know if it was septicemia or not, and what antibiotic to give the patient,” he said. “Lots of people have started, in the last five years, companies using technologies that diagnostic guys had never thought of, or heard of, to look at a sample to try to get a signature, to cut the time to a result drastically—from two days to 10 minutes. This is a huge disruption.”
Of course, the falling cost of genome sequencing is also disruptive. How does Bancel see that trend impacting healthcare in the next five years? For starters, his answer presumes we will get our whole genomes sequenced rather than pay for separate genetic tests.
“You will even keep your genome on a USB key, or your iPhone or whatever, and as you grow older or as you develop disease, you’ll get your genome sequenced again to understand what has changed,” he said. “The best example is cancer, because it’s a disease of the genome. What’s already happening at [Mass. General Hospital] is they’re sequencing a healthy cell and a tumor cell of a given patient, comparing base by base using Knome software, for example, to give all the mutations in the tumor to the doc so the doc can use clinical-trial drugs to target exactly the mutations identified.”
Bancel was talking about the future of diagnostics and pharma, sure, but he might also have been talking about his own role in the industry. “This is going to be a big, big change,” he said. “I think the next five years is going to be transformed. If you look at all the data, we are reaching an inflection point.”