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CRISPR Therapeutics Switches CEOs As It Approaches First Clinical Study

Xconomy Boston — 

With its first clinical trial possibly just months away, one of the leading biotech firms using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to make drugs is turning to a new CEO.

CRISPR Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CRSP), a company split between Cambridge, MA, and Switzerland, said this morning that founding CEO Rodger Novak will hand the reins to the company’s president and chief business officer Samarth Kulkarni (pictured). The changeover takes place December 1.

The intercontinental split took its toll on Novak, who is based in Switzerland and declined to move full-time to the U.S., where the company shifted its main operations in 2015. “I have been flying more than 120 times across the Atlantic over the last three and a half years,” he told Xconomy. “I decided earlier this year that this is not sustainable for me.”

Kulkarni is based in the Cambridge, MA, location. But there are no plans to consolidate the company altogether in the U.S., Novak said.

The company’s leading program is for the rare blood disease beta-thalassemia, part of its partnership with Vertex signed in 2015. It expects to ask European regulators for permission this year to start a study in 2018, which could make it the first-ever trial of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing in humans. Rivals Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT) and Intellia Therapeutics (NASDAQ: NTLA) are also moving toward the clinic.

Editas this year bumped back its timeline for its first human study, to treat a rare form of blindness, from 2017 to 2018. Intellia is leading with a program to treat the genetic disorder transthyretin amyloidosis, and its first foray into the clinic isn’t likely until at least 2019.

CRISPR shares on the Nasdaq were down 12 cents, less than a percent, to $17.75 in early trading Monday.

Novak, who has run CRISPR Therapeutics since it was founded in 2013 and took it public last year, will remain on the board of directors at both CRISPR Therapeutics and a joint venture that CRISPR runs with Bayer called Casebia Therapeutics. CRISPR was formed around the discoveries of CRISPR-Cas9 pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. Via the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna’s intellectual property went to Caribou Biosciences, which in turn granted Intellia of Cambridge, MA, exclusive rights to use the technology for human medicines. Because of laws in Sweden, where Charpentier was once based, she could assign her work independently, and chose CRISPR Therapeutics, which was created by Versant Ventures. Charpentier, now director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany, remains an advisory scientific board member of CRISPR.

Novak was previously head of infectious disease R&D at Sanofi, and was a top executive for several years at Nabriva Therapeutics, an antibiotic developer that spun out of Novartis.

Before joining CRISPR in 2015, Kulkarni worked at the consulting firm McKinsey. He has been on board during CRISPR’s major strategic maneuvers. “Sam and I have worked closely together for the last couple of years and with that we have an almost natural transition, in particular with a top-notch R&D team now in place,” said Novak. For the promotion, Kulkarni’s base salary will jump from $415,000 to $500,000 a year, according to a regulatory filing. He could be eligible for bonuses of at least half that amount.

Over four years, he will receive options to purchase 260,000 of the company’s common shares at three cents apiece and more than 26,000 restricted shares. In addition, Kulkarni will receive up to 150,000 stock options in coming years if CRISPR shares reach milestones of $40 and $50.

Image by Ivydawned via Creative Commons 2.0 license.