This blog was written by Kevin Pojasek, co-founder and Acting CEO of Quartet Medicine and Atlas EIR, as part of the “From the Trenches” feature of LifeSciVC.
“Most of the smartest people work somewhere else.” The famous Bill Joy quote, often repeated by Dave Grayzel at Atlas, rings particularly true in an “everything-strapped” early stage biotech start-up. It’s imperative to look outside our lean teams to academic advisors and seasoned industry consultants and to help shape our company. Although, the way in which management teams assemble and utilize their advisor networks can differ vastly depending on the underlying start-up’s business model (e.g., single-asset vs. platform) and stage of development (e.g., discovery vs. clinical).
At Quartet, we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about how best to build our advisor networks so I thought I’d share a few reflections on this topic in parallel to today’s announcement of our Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). As with nearly everything to do with our industry, LifeSciVC weighed in with a great post on the practical do’s and don’ts for SABs, several themes from which are incorporated below (he is our Chairman after all!).
So why even have a SAB? This almost seems like a rhetorical question given that the vast majority of biotechs have illustrious scientific advisors listed on their websites. Properly crafted SABs can provide nascent start-ups with instant “brand recognition” among investors and potential partners, not to mention invaluable access to sage advice for how best advance their programs. At the same time, SABs also cost time, money and equity – three of the most precious resources for start-ups. Careful consideration is essential. Asking the “why” question helps focus the mind on what you’d like to achieve with your SAB to address your specific company’s needs and helps avoid pursuing a formulaic approach just to “check the box”.
In fact, some companies pursue a “no SAB” approach, including two recent exits from the Atlas portfolio – Arteaus and Annovation. Both companies were peri-clinical stage, single-asset companies with that entered into option-to-acquire deal structures with interested partners. In lieu of a formal SAB, the management team of each company relied on experienced preclinical and clinical advisors to help guide the programs through early clinical proof-of-concept to trigger the option-to-acquire. For example, in developing a novel intravenous anesthetic at Annovation, we relied on our academic co-founder, Doug Raines (MGH, Harvard Medical School) and our board representative from The Medicines Company, Jason Campagna, both of whom are anesthesia experts. We complemented their expertise by engaging consultants at over a 10:1 ratio to employees and by having a topnotch Phase 1 Principal Investigator to provide practical guidance in protocol design and study execution.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “corner the market” strategy that broad biology and discovery platform companies often take to lock up the thought leaders in an entire field. Looking again within the Atlas portfolio, Raze Therapeutics is a great example of this strategy. Having secured most of the leading players in mitochondrial 1-carbon metabolism builds instant credibility for the company and its scientific underpinning. Through regular SAB meetings, the Raze team stays at the forefront of the field by getting early access to the latest data and scuttlebutt. While this type of SAB can be time consuming and expensive to manage, the investment returns from quarterly, in-person meetings, not to mention regular calls, are undoubtedly worth the expense.
Obviously, there are plenty of approaches to SAB creation that fall on the spectrum between the “no SAB” and “corner the market” strategies. When I recently discussed this topic with Tom Hughes (Zagen CEO and fellow “From the Trenches” blogger), he quipped, “build your SAB out of straw, not brick” underscoring the importance of built in flexibility to adapt as your program matures. He also highlighted the importance of having other less formal advisor groups working on practical, well-defined questions, such as the optimal preclinical toxicology strategy or the clinical development plan for your program.
The Quartet SAB – Purpose-built diversity
“Diversity” was our primary focus when building Quartet SAB. We brought together both basic scientists, as well as clinicians, some of whom are in academia and others who currently have industry day jobs. As a virtual, asset-centric company, we believe that tapping into this “multi-axis” diversity provides the best foundation to help advance our program through clinical proof-of-concept.
Our co-founders, Clifford Woolf (Boston Children’s Hospital; Harvard Medical School) and Kai Johnsson (EPFL, Switzerland) along with members of their labs, provide ongoing insight into how to best modulate the tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) pathway to treat chronic disease. To further strengthen our academic underpinnings, we added Keith Channon (University of Oxford, UK), a physician-scientist focused on understanding BH4’s role in modulating endothelial cell and macrophage function, and Roy Freeman (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Harvard Medical School), well known pain clinical trialist.
To complement these outstanding academic scientists and clinicians, we also have three R&D vets, all of whom are currently employed by major biopharma companies. David Reynolds (Neusentis/Pfizer) is a seasoned drug developer who first engaged with Quartet while leading Pfizer’s due diligence to support Pfizer Venture Investments participation in our Series A. Richard Hargreaves (Biogen) brings an encyclopedic knowledge of CNS drug discovery from his 25 years at Merck where he led this discipline. Samantha Budd Haeberlein (also at Biogen) is a physician-scientist expert in translational biomarker strategies for advancing programs through human proof-of-concept. Richard and Samantha both dove in before their current engagements, but kudos (and thank you!) to Biogen for allowing them to stay engaged with Quartet.
Having SAB members who have full-time industry day jobs is unusual in biotech where the retired advisor is more common. Although, I’d wager that this type of external engagement is for full-time employees is likely a growing trend. It’s a great way for senior management to help retain energetic, entrepreneurial employees who wish to spend a portion of their time in the ecosystem outside their own organization. In addition, externally engaged employees provide another avenue for uncovering promising biotechs as large biopharma companies increasingly look to support their pipelines with early, creative partnerships.
From the start-up’s perspective, having active industry folks involved not only provides practical drug discovery experience, but can also help open doors and lend credibility to discussions with decision makers inside potential partners. At the same time, relationships with actively employed advisors need to be handled carefully to manage potential conflicts in partnering discussions. Naturally, open and honest relationships are the best path to avoiding potential issues.
A diverse SAB spanning target biology, drug discovery, translational pharmacology, and early clinical experience can make it challenging to hold productive, full group sessions during which everyone engaged. As such, “all hands on deck” SAB meetings are likely only justified once or twice a year. Individual SAB members can be utilized regularly, though, in smaller working groups to help addressing pressing needs of the company. Putting the advisors to work is a critical component of keeping them engaged.
As with most things in biotech, SABs come in many varieties. We’ve chosen “purpose-built diversity” as the guiding principle for our SAB at Quartet because we feel like this structure provides the greatest return on our investment. I would love to hear readers’ thoughts on how they’ve approached SAB assembly. What has worked well? What fell short?