Celebrating The “Fierce Four” of Atlas Venture

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Yesterday we were excited to see four Atlas portfolio companies selected to receive “Fierce15” awards from FierceBiotech as part of the 2015 “class”. It’s a wonderful honor for them, and for Atlas, and thought it a great moment to reflect on their stories.

For those that don’t know the “Fierce15′, here’s some context: these awards were started back in 2003 by the FierceBiotech editorial staff with the aim of recognizing fifteen of the “most promising” private biotech companies. This year’s list is the 13th annual set that they have put together. While not always perfectly prescient, they have been remarkably good at identifying some of the industry’s big winners: seven of the fifteen companies with the largest current market capitalizations (greater than $1.25B as of today) from the IPO Classes of 2013-2014 were Fierce15 winners in past years, including Juno, Intrexon, Ultragenyx, Bluebird, Agios, Portola, and Fibrogen. In addition, according to Editor-in-Chief John Carroll’s write-up, eight of the 2014 Fierce15 class have either already gone public or are filed to go – an amazingly high percentage.

Atlas has been fortunate enough to have at least one portfolio company receive the Fierce honor every year since the inaugural 2003 Class, except for 2005. Past winners include companies like Avila, Zafgen, miRagen, and Nimbus. Last year, we were pleased to have two Fund IX companies honored – Spero and Navitor.

We’re thrilled to see four of our other Fund IX companies recognized this year, a great recognition of the hardwork of our entrepreneurs at Intellia, Padlock, Surface Oncology, and Unum. It’s worth noting that the first three of these came out of our seed-led venture creation process at Atlas, with all of those three incubating within our offices in their formative moments.

In the introduction to this year’s awards, FierceBiotech’s editors comment on the “big brain drain from Pharma to Biotech”. This is most certainly the case for our four startups; for example, Chuck Wilson, formerly head of BD at the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, is CEO and founder of Unum; Intellia has John Leonard, former head of AbbVie’s R&D effort, as Chief Medical Officer; Mike Gilman, former head of research at Biogen, is CEO and founder of Padlock; and Detlev Biniszkiewicz, former head of oncology strategy at AZ, is CEO of Surface. Most of their management teams have decades of experience at Biogen, Novartis, Pfizer, Merck, Vertex, and other great biotech training grounds.

Each of the companies has a good write-up by the editors of FierceBiotech (here), so instead of walking through where they are today, I’ll quickly reflect on their founding and the “special sauce” that makes them so interesting.

Intellia Therapeutics

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that “CRISPR is hot”; this rapidly evolving gene editing approach has the potential to revolutionize molecular biology and medicine the way PCR did nearly thirty years ago. Intellia Logo-01Intellia was founded by Atlas, Novartis, and Caribou Biosciences in 2014 to harness patent-protected CRISPR technology to develop transformative medicines based on both in vivo and ex vivo uses.

Although an “overnight” success according to its Fierce15 profile, launching Intellia was the culmination of nearly eighteen months of intensive pre-startup work by Atlas EIR Nessan Bermingham (now Intellia’s CEO) and my partner Jean Francois Formela on the concept; in fact, the first formal “seed” deal presentation at Atlas was in the winter of 2013, well before any of the therapeutic CRISPR plays had come together. It’s funny to read that seed pitch deck now (I did yesterday) as there have been many twists and turns along the road to today.

It’s also amazing to think that in less than 30 months this field has raised ~$500M in equity and deal-related capital across three CRISPR companies. With this type of fuel, it’s no wonder the companies are all expanding their footprints and hiring at a feverish pace: although it incubated within Atlas in its early days, Intellia quickly grew out of our space in late 2014 and set up its own laboratories here in Cambridge MA, with potentially 75 staffers by end of 2015 – becoming a “big” startup biotech quite quickly.

Padlock Therapeutics

Padlock is working hard to change the way we treat inflammatory autoimmune diseases; as noted in its Fierce15 profile, they are seeking to “intervene at an earlier stage in the immune process, targeting the enzymes responsible for triggering the body’s alarms in the first place in hopes of finding new therapies for some common diseases.” Padlock Logo for Atlas website Mike Gilman, cofounder and Atlas EIR, wrote an eloquent piece “Rekindling the Flame”, describing the fascinating immunology behind the company’s founding, when Padlock came out of its seed-stage stealth mode in December 2014 with the closing of its Series A.

The roots of the startup go back to Scripps Research Institute, where two scientists were doing complementary work on the PAD enzyme family – Paul Thompson, who is now at UMass, and Kerri Mowen, who remains at Scripps La Jolla. We got excited by their work in the summer of 2013, and were thrilled to recruit Mike to (re)join us when he left Biogen for a second time. Watching successful serial entrepreneurs like Mike raise their hand to jump in is a great biomarker of quality. With Mike at the helm, we seeded the company with some clear milestones around the drug-ability of the enzyme family, and closed a Series A with J&J’s Boston Innovation Center, MerckSerono Ventures, and Index Ventures later in 2014. We’ve since made a ton of progress on both small molecule and antibody approaches to several isoforms of the PAD enzyme class.

Unlike Intellia, Padlock has stuck with its “virtual” lab model to date (though that may change in 2016), with only a few core team members incubating at Atlas’s offices in Cambridge and an important research relationship with Evotec. They have also formed a partnership with GSK to access a “whole basket of assets” targeting PAD4, as Mike described in the “Art of the In-License” earlier in the summer. We’re expecting to enter development in 2016 and look forward to unlocking the promise and potential of this enzyme class across a range of serious autoimmune diseases.

Surface Oncology

Right next to CRISPR at the top of the “heat index” in biotech is the field of immuno-oncology (I/O); seems like there’s new data, new deals, and new startups in the space every day. It’s clear that harnessing the immune response to cancer is going to transform the treatment of many cancers over the next decade.

While remaining stealth regarding the specifics of its targets, the company is focused on “on improving antigen uptake and presentation, blocking suppressor cells that populate the tumor microenvironment and heading off cytokines and metabolites that can blunt an immune system attack” as described in its Fierce15 profile.  Surface Oncology LogoRather than repeat it here, Surface’s founding concept, story, and list of great co-investors was unveiled in a January 2015 blogpost “Immuno-oncology: Scratching the Surface”. Since that time, my partner and founding CEO Dave Grayzel has succeeded in replacing himself by recruiting Big Pharma veteran Detlev Biniszkiewicz, previously at AZ and Novartis, as CEO in May of this year (here).

Further, as noted by Fierce, Surface has assembled an impressive “brain trust” of immuno-oncology thought leaders to help advise it as it advances its stable of programs: Sasha Rudensky (MSK), Arlene Sharpe (Harvard), Christopher Hunter and John Wherry (both Penn), Carla Rothlin (Yale), John Stagg (Montreal), and Elliott Sigal (ex-BMS R&D Head).

Taking a cue from Elliott Sigal’s comments to the Fierce15 editors (here), Surface is the “Wayne Gretsky of immuno-oncology”: instead of going where the puck and everyone else is, they are going after targets where the puck will be…

Unum Therapeutics

Unum’s next generation cell therapy platform is also part of the wave of excitement in the I/O field, specifically around engineered T-cell therapies like the CAR-T approaches of Juno, Kite, and others.

We first engaged with cell therapy pioneer Dario Campana, the scientific founder of Unum who provided the design for an Antibody-Coupled T-cell Receptor (ACTR), in late 2013 after his Cancer Research online publication detailing the concept (here). Unum Logo-01 The technology offered enormous potential as a universal engineered T-cell construct that could be used to bring the power of T-cell effector functions to any anti-cancer antibody; this universality drove the name Unum – “Out of many, One”.

In early 2014, co-founder and CEO Chuck Wilson engaged with Dario to start Unum, with Series A backing from Fidelity and Atlas that came together later in the summer. For details of the landscape and Unum’s approach, see last year’s blog post announcing the Series A round titled “Cellular Immunotherapy & Unum Therapeutics: Out of Many, One” and Chuck’s great review of the space in ‘From The Trenches’ titled “Better Living Through T-cells“.

After powering up the platform with a significant Series B and a multi-target deal with Seattle Genetics in the spring of this year, we are rapidly advancing deeper into clinical testing. Unum is currently engaged in a Phase 1 ACTR study with Rituxan, plans to launch a second study in the coming months, and aim to grow the portfolio significantly over the coming quarters.

We’re thrilled with all four of our 2015 Fierce15 honorees – great companies working on transformative therapeutics addressing major unmet medical needs. We are fortunate to get to work with great people doing great things, and appreciate FierceBiotech recognizing their efforts.


A Leadership Imperative: Getting More C-Level Women In Biotech

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The relative absence of women from significant leadership roles in the biotech industry has rightfully become a front-and-center topic, in part prompted by a wave of coverage on the subject (here, here, here, here). Liftstream’s recent report, titled “Diversifying the outlook : The X&Y of biotechnology leadership”, is particularly compelling in its review of the issue, the underlying data, and what can be done about it.

Adding to this, in an excellent and data-rich “From The Trenches” blog post this morning, Nimbus Therapeutics’ CSO, Rosana Kapeller, asks the important question of “Where are the women?” in biotech today. Over the past few weeks since she and I connected on the topic, it’s prompted a lot of thinking and triggered some self-reflection.

The bottom line of her blog, and other recent reports, is this: women make up 50% of the talent pool (here) in the overall biomedical workforce, including slightly more than half of all doctorates, but are woefully under-represented in leadership roles in our industry and that’s unacceptable.

Before pointing abstractly at others about this problem, I took a look at the Atlas portfolio – and I’ll admit that I am surprised and disappointed to see such a small percentage of female leaders in “CxO” roles. We have only one female CEO right now in a portfolio of two-dozen companies, and only one female CSO (Rosana). The ranks of female CFO/CBO roles in our portfolio are much more common, representing more than a quarter of our companies. But these stats are still shocking low. Especially when back in 2010, three of the four women leaders honored by WEST here in Boston were current or former Atlas CEOs. So the lack of women in our current portfolio gives me pause, and made me reflect on why.

Others have opined more intelligently on the reasons behind this important issue and the challenges that women executives/entrepreneurs face (here, here, here, here), but a few are worth noting here.

Subconscious cognitive bias in how aspiring women professionals are viewed, by both men and women hiring decision-makers, is a big part of the issue.  They are at a disadvantage because of misperceptions around behavioral attributes, like mistaking aggressive assertiveness as a marker of competency. Stereotypical “female” traits like being less vocal about their opinions, more deferential in meetings, more empathetic and sensitive to other people’s needs, and more team-oriented vs individually focused – all play into this subconscious bias. Rosana’s blog covers this topic very well.

Fundamentally, this bias affects the way both men and women view female leadership candidates, and certainly plays a significant role in the lack of female C-level leaders. It also clearly affects how women scientists are viewed in academia as well, covered extensively by others (an example, here), where getting funding and professorships show significant gender inequality.

Further, these social cognitive biases reinforce the practice of “like hires like” in unintentional ways, as Rosana notes. Common questions we ask in recruiting – like the “Elevator Test” or “Airport Test”, essentially asking who would you like to be stuck with on work travel – are almost certainly self-fulfilling. Hiring more people who look and think like you because it’s easy and what we know. Grabbing a drink after work with folks that have similar “likes” reinforces the “boys club” in many fields, biotech is no exception. However, “like hires like” also can play the other way with positive effects: with more female leaders in a company, you’re able to attract more women who want to work in a more welcoming environment. A great example is Dimension Therapeutics, where CEO Annalisa Jenkins has a predominantly female leadership team (here). Rosana’s data on women founders and the percentage of women on their leadership teams reinforces this point.

The cognitive bias is also found in startup funding circles: stereotypically masculine traits are frequently sought after in entrepreneurs, and in executives for that matter. Lakshimi Balachandra at Babson has studied the subject, and, like many others, has shown that regardless of gender, masculine features outperformed effeminate ones in leading fundraising efforts and pitching new ideas.  Here’s the paragraph from an Atlantic piece titled “The Sexism of Startup Land” that captures it:

“Balachandra examined how venture capitalists reacted to one-minute pitches from male and female startup founders in various industries. The main factor that determined whether the entrepreneurs were successful, she found, was how stereotypically “masculine” they behaved. The entrepreneurs—male and female—who were confident, stern, strong, and bold were much more likely to win funding for their ventures. The ones who were more stereotypically female, which to Balachandra’s team meant they acted happier, kinder, and more excited, tended to lose. Importantly, there was no gender gap: The manly women performed better than the effeminate men did.

We need to figure out how to better embrace and integrate a broader set of traits in the startup biotech landscape, as Rosana clearly describes in her blog. Only highlighting successful women who act like men doesn’t feel like the right solution.

Related to this stereotypies, there’s a (mis)perception that women don’t have the same risk tolerance as men; in a risk-embracing culture such as startup biotech, this perception may affect how candidates are viewed.  It also creates a social bias for who might raise their hand to jump into a risky startup.  Throwing away a cushy Big BioPharma job, with the more flexible working arrangements that big companies often offer, in exchange for a high-risk, all-in endeavor when you have a family at home requires thoughtful risk-calculus and consideration. Men and women often answer that assessment differently depending on the support they have at home.

But although this “women-don’t-take-risks” perception may have its roots in some settings (and may be reinforced by evolutionary biology), in the managerial context this socially-constructed myth is just that – a myth – and has been debunked before (here). A recent Kauffman study also shows how female entrepreneurs are frequently “smart” risk-takers (here), exactly what we want in entrepreneurs and biotech executives. What is clear, however, is that female leaders’ risk-taking is more often “invisible”, frequently because of a subconscious aversion to assert themselves for credit and a lack of self-promotion. Celebrating great women leaders in high-risk, high-return settings like biotech is part of breaking this log-jam; here’s Scott Kirsner’s superb Boston Globe piece on the ten most influential women in Massachuesetts biotech. There are hundreds of great women beyond those distinguished ten. We need more of this to bring visibility to the topic.

Lastly, it’s worth briefly commenting on the observation of highly educated women “opting-out” (here, here). Recent research from Vanderbuilt highlighted that “married mothers who are graduates of elite colleges have lower labor market activity than their counterparts from less-selective institutions” (here, and in the Boston Globe here). In their analysis, more than 50% of married women with kids under 18 years old that have degrees from “elite” Tier 1 academic institutions chose to stay-at-home. My family is one of the beneficiaries of this: my highly educated wife has chosen to opt-out and stay-at-home with our three kids. Not an easy choice, as she’s constantly torn between wanting to work professionally and wanting to stay at home. But as a society we need to figure out how to keep our most talented potential contributors engaged more broadly, as many who have opted-out feel forced to make that decision – which probably means more flexible work and childcare environments. Further, better approaches to “on-ramping” those who opted-out previously but are keen to return to work are needed (here).

But even assuming more women than men choose to stay at home and raise kids during the important career-advancing decades of their 30s and 40s, the reality remains that the ratio of men to women in senior biotech roles should not be as skewed as it is today; as Rosana’s blog affirms, it’s like 5-to-1 or worse today across most leadership positions. This leaves a large portion of the available talent pool untapped. It’s a simple fact that we need to fix.

So what can and should we do about this in biotech?

We can’t fix the system overnight, but we can push in our own organizations and, for those of us in venture-backed biotech, we can push with our portfolio company boards and leadership teams. I don’t have a silver bullet solution, but we can work on three things.

First, an important step in confronting cognitive biases is acknowledging the issue head-on and bringing it to the fore; raising this topic and holding our recruiting processes to a higher standard is an obvious one. Testing a “search” committee’s premises on how candidate profiles are being judging and making sure that the best candidate gets picked – not the best male or best female candidate. Challenging the assumptions around the questions of “is she a fit” and “can she scale”, as Rosana points out, is critical. Truly dissecting the contributions of male and female contributors to past outcomes in referencing is also important.

Second, we need to actively challenge the “List” in recruiting. Every time rosters of possible candidates get identified, we should push to have more diversity in the mix at the outset. It’s not been that way in most searches I’ve seen; in fact, out of nearly 120 individuals on a “Contact List” (as sources or prospects) for a recent CEO search, only 14% were women. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take note of the lack of females on the list at the time – but I’ll notice it going forward. Unless we get more women’s names on these lists for C-level positions and board roles, hiring will continue to reflect the skewed underlying pool of candidates.

Third, once recruited, we need better mentorship and career development in biotech to help women grow into future roles, as Rosana notes. Organizations like WEST and others are doing this – but both men and women need to push this agenda. Biogen has been making a big push on this front, even connecting some of their star female executives to venture firms like Atlas to find external board roles for them (here). Trying to find and actively cultivate the right connections for emerging female leaders is critical.

To close out on this important topic – accessing talent is the #1 issue in biotech today, across both leadership teams and boardrooms (here). We have huge demands for experienced R&D, general management, and capital markets savvy candidates. As a sector, we need to focus on improving how we recruit, retain, and engage women leaders if we are to successfully address these talent demands, and any company that can figure how to capitalize on this will have a huge competitive advantage versus those that fail to address it.

Thanks to Rosana for inspiring me to think more actively about this important topic.