Sometimes it takes a contrarian viewpoint, and a little guts, to get a scientific idea off the ground. Other times an idea can be so enthralling that venture firms will fight one another—or join forces— just to get a piece of it. Little surprise that these things describe some of the upstarts coming out of the Boston biotech scene these days.
This past week, we brought together some of biotech’s most-intriguing startups, innovators, executives, and venture capitalists for our latest life sciences event, “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech.” Attendees at the Biogen Idec campus in Cambridge, MA, got an up close, in-depth look at not just some of the boldest biotech ideas coming out of Boston today, but the struggles and challenges faced by some of the region’s more-established biotech innovators. How did Editas Medicine, for instance, end up becoming a child of three of Boston’s top biotech venture firms? How is the RNA interference world responding to Big Pharma’s decision to systematically exit the space? And how did Cubist Pharmaceuticals unexpectedly end up with two big buyouts on the same day? These are just a few of the tidbits from the festivities at Biogen.
Big thanks to our speakers and moderators: Douglas Williams, EVP of Research & Development at Biogen; John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals; Robert Urban, head of J&J’a Boston Innovation Center; Richard Brudnick, VP of business development at Biogen; Jason Rhodes, CFO of Epizyme; Rob Armstrong, former VP of global external research and development at Eli Lilly; Michael Bonney, CEO of Cubist; Kevin Bitterman of Polaris Partners; Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Nancy Simonian, CEO of Syros Pharmaceuticals; Katrine Bosley of the Broad Institute; Roger Stein, chief analytics officer at State Street Global Exchange; and David Berry of Flagship Ventures.
Also a big thanks to our event host, Biogen, and our sponsors: Cubist, Health Advances, Icon, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky, and Popeo, and Rasky Baerlein. And a special thanks to KeithSpiroPhoto courtesy of Kendall Press, for the photos.
With that, here are some of my biggest takeaways from a jam-packed afternoon in Boston:
—RNA interference drugs may not have as many targets as it originally appeared, and John Maraganore is OK with that. Alnylam Pharmaceuticals was one of several RNA interference companies that got shredded by Wall Street last week after Novartis became the latest pharmaceutical company to completely back out of RNAi research. In explaining its decision, Novartis specifically cited the small number of targets available for RNAi drugs. After calling pharma “terrible at innovation,” Alnylam’s Maraganore said there are more than enough drug targets in the liver for Alnylam to succeed. “We could build a company for the next 20 or 30 years based on liver-expressed target genes, and I could really care less if any cell type in the body becomes a site for delivering the proteins,” Maraganore said.
—Dealmaking between biotech and pharma is no longer rigid. Epizyme’s Jason Rhodes is no stranger to creative biotech deals. Epizyme, after all, had a chance to sell itself a few years ago, but decided to stay independent and instead struck a big partnership with Celgene to work together on a group of cancer drugs while keeping U.S. rights—a deal that, in essence, enabled Epizyme to control its future. Rhodes noted that such deals have become much more common in biotech, rather than pharma companies simply swooping in and bullying companies with cash.
“There’s a flexibility on the part of Big Pharma in these collaborations that I think really is different from the way it was historically,” he said. “I think there was a view of biotechs often as companies that were science-based and innovative, but very limited in their potential. What we see more and more is the ability of the biopharmaceutical/biotech company to retain very significant territory rights, and also remain very actively involved. [These deals have] turned into true collaborations, rather than the out-licensing activities they historically were.”
—Cubist thought it was buying one antibiotics company. Instead, it ended up with two. Most people know by now that Cubist bought Optimer Pharmaceuticals and Trius Therapeutics on the same day last year, spending about $1.2 billion total. But Mike Bonney said that wasn’t … Next Page »