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Coming to Boston Was a “No-Brainer”: Xconomy’s Newcomer Award Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

Building a biotech business comes down to a lot of meetings and networking with potential new partners, hires, investors and others. Having all of these folks, along with top academics, highly concentrated in an urban center (that also has a lot of nice restaurants and coffee shops to meet in) was a key factor in spurring the finalists in our Newcomer category to come to Boston. “Energizing,” “vibrant,” and “fantastic ecosystem” are some of the words used by these finalists to describe the city’s startup-friendly vibe, and they say their move has already paid off in terms of tapping into new expertise and investment. “Boston was a no-brainer for us,” says Mike Heslop, president of Blue Earth Diagnostics, a UK firm that set up its US arm in Burlington in 2015. “It’s the absolutely perfect place for a healthcare startup.”

Here are the Newcomer finalists. The winner of this and the other categories of the Xconomy Awards will be announced at our Awards Gala on September 26 at the Hynes Convention Center.

Bicycle Therapeutics – Building its Cancer Business in Boston

Cambridge, UK-based Bicycle Therapeutics didn’t waste much time after setting up its US subsidiary in the Boston area in April 2016. By October of that year, it had hired a VP of oncology, Peter Park, who was previously at Mersana Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA. And just three months after that, a new chief scientific officer, Nick Keen, joined from Novartis, where he was head of oncology research in Cambridge. In June 2017, the company added two new US-based investors in its Series B round of $52 million.

Bicycle decided last year to set up in Boston as part of its move to apply its technology—peptides that can deliver cell-killing payloads and also be directed to specific molecular targets—to cancer. “The talents in the oncology pool are particularly strong in Boston,” says Ros Deegan, the company’s president and chief business officer, who moved to Boston from Pennsylvania last year to join Bicycle and launch the Boston office. More local hires in cancer biology are on the way, and the company hopes to start its first clinical trial next year in the UK. Deegan says she was struck by the sheer number of opportunities to meet with potential collaborators here. “It’s like being at a JP Morgan conference every day,” she says.

Blue Earth Diagnostics – Going Commercial By Way of Boston

Blue Earth is another British company that also hit the ground running after launching its US subsidiary in the Boston area. Mike Heslop, the company’s president, was its first US employee in 2015. He started hiring people from his home office, and setting the wheels in motion for a FDA new drug application, all before he moved into new office space in Burlington in January 2016. Blue Earth was focused on gathering the final clinical data on its PET imaging agent for recurrent prostate cancer, and opened its US office to win FDA approval and pursue the US market. Less than six months after moving into the new office, the FDA approval came through. Heslop says being able to hire so many experienced people out of Boston’s deep talent pool, and being in a place with such an advanced healthcare system, allowed the company to move fast. “I struggle to think of any other place in the US where we could have done this so quickly,” says Heslop.

Centrexion Therapeutics – Moving Cities to Move the Pipeline Forward

Centrexion had been operating out of Baltimore for three years, developing non-opioid pain drugs, when it reached a turning point. It was on its way into phase III trials and had just expanded its pipeline by acquiring three drug candidates. To reach the next level, the company decided in 2016 to shift operations to Boston, and earlier this year it officially became a Boston-based company. Centrexion plans to start phase III trials before the end of the year and has already hired two people from Boston in the last two months to help them do that. It’s also tapped into Boston’s vast network of advisors and consultants. “There’s just something different about being here, interacting face-to-face with people,” says Kerrie Brady, a Centrexion co-founder and its chief business officer, who moved to Boston in late 2016 after 12 years in Baltimore.

It recently became clear to Brady that she and her company are not the only ones who’ve made the move. At a recent Cambridge reception for biotech business development people, she bumped into half a dozen people she knew from Baltimore and other cities. “I feel very much at home here,” says Brady.

LEO Science & Tech Hub – Dealmakers from Denmark Come to Town

Michael Sierra says he’s trying to build a sort of mini-biotech within a much larger and more established pharmaceutical company. Sierra is a VP at LEO Pharma, a 100-year-old, 5,000-employee firm headquartered just outside Copenhagen that develops drugs for skin diseases. Sierra moved to Boston about a year ago to open and head up LEO’s innovation arm, the LEO Science & Tech Hub. The goal is to mine the Boston community for new technologies that could improve skin imaging and disease monitoring, drug delivery, and early diagnostics. He and his small group have already inked six deals with various academic groups and startups in Boston and New York.

Sierra says creating this hub is a way for LEO to act more nimbly than a traditional large company and take chances on high-risk, cutting-edge research. And Boston, he adds, is the best place to discover that research. “We’ve found technologies that could really impact our business, but we didn’t know about them before because we weren’t here on the ground.”

Amy Schulman – From Big City/Big Company to Startup CEO

In early 2014, Amy Schulman was looking for a change. She and Pfizer had parted ways, after she had headed up the company’s $4 billion consumer healthcare business and served as general counsel. A conversation with Dennis Ausiello, Pfizer’s lead independent director and former chief of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (and also a finalist in our Innovation at the Intersection category) led her to MIT’s famed inventor Robert Langer (who is one of the judges of the Xconomy Awards but is not judging this category). Schulman and Langer began talking about one of his latest startups at the time, Arsia Therapeutics. Within a few months in 2014, Schulman moved to Boston, joined Polaris Partners as a venture partner and became Arsia’s CEO—her first foray into the world of biotech and small companies.

During her time at Arsia, which was acquired by Eagle Pharmaceuticals in 2016, Schulman started talking with Langer and Andrew Bellinger, a Langer lab member at the time, about another startup, Lyndra, which they co-founded in 2015. Schulman is now Lyndra’s CEO and earlier this year raised a $23 million Series A round, which the company is using to develop formulations for extended-release, long-acting oral drugs. Schulman also teaches leadership and corporate accountability to first-year business students at Harvard Business School. She says she wasn’t initially thinking about moving to Boston, but “I couldn’t see any other way of doing this if I didn’t.”

This is the sixth in a series of articles profiling the Awards finalists. You can see stories on the finalists in the Patient Partnership, Commitment to Diversity, Young Innovator, Startup, and CEO categories.