9 Takeaways from Boston’s Life Science Disruptors

10/4/13Follow @benthefidler

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entities making those adjuvants at various points in its development. But rather than split up the ownership pie through a merger, Genocea chose to instead in-license an adjuvant from Sweden-based Isconova AB that had been in the clinic, and had been more developed, to help limit the already substantial risk Genocea was taking.

“I think that was a good decision based on watching the paths of some of the adjuvants we could have merged with,” Bitterman said.

“I looked at the data and said, ‘you’re crazy.’” This was Stephane Bancel’s first reaction when Flagship Ventures’ Noubar Afeyan pitched him on the idea of using messenger RNA to potentially create a whole new class of drugs that are cheap and easy to produce, showing him slides of mouse data. Afeyan’s response: “Forget about all your questions and your natural tendency to think this is not possible—but just assume for a minute that this is possible?”

Bancel, who had spent much of his career at big firms like French diagnostics company bioMerieux, was intrigued—he liked the idea of being at a startup “from the get-go.” But he’d only join if a single VC backed the company, rather than a syndicate. Flagship Ventures acquiesced, and in return, Bancel promised to raise money from other sources.

“People wouldn’t hear ‘m’ very well, they’d hear RNA.” Moderna made a deliberate decision to say absolutely nothing about its technology for almost two years. No press releases, no website. It was tough for Moderna to recruit talent. But Moderna has been very careful because of how new its science is, cognizant of the high promise and past failures of gene therapy and RNA-interference drugs—two methods Afeyan said people were often comparing Moderna’s technology to.

“We couldn’t avoid people saying ‘Well, isn’t this like gene therapy?’” he said.

Moderna itself kept expecting to find holes in the technology, so Flagship kept putting small amounts of money in, and Moderna stayed quiet, wary of overpromising or trumpeting itself as the proprietor of a whole new class of treatment, only to flop.

“The stealth part actually was as much offensive as it was defensive,” Afeyan said.

No Pascal, no deal. Even though Moderna was a little biotech startup, Bancel made it very clear that there would be no partnership with AstraZeneca if he didn’t get a face-to-face meeting with its CEO, Pascal Soriot.

“I told the [business development people] if I don’t see Pascal, because there’s no engagement of a CEO behind this new technology, I don’t want to partner with you—you are not the right partner for [us].”

That meeting happened (as we explained in March), and Bancel was very realistic about the prospects—he warned Soriot, as he does all of his investors “this might never work—you realize you might lose all of your money.”

Nonetheless, the reward was worth the risk. Moderna ended up with a huge check for $240 million upfront that gave it the chance to really begin building its business.

“We were probably not the first and only company to look at this—we were probably the last.” Bluebird is really the successor to a 21-year-old gene therapy company known as Genetix Pharmaceuticals, which had been leaning on bridge loans to survive. Third Rock Ventures was doing diligence on it when … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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