Boston is probably the best place in the world to start a biotech company today, and, yes, I’ve been studying the San Francisco Bay Area a lot lately, as the Globe’s Scott Kirsner reported last week. Strong as Boston may be, the biotech industry still has a lot of systemic issues to deal with, like the rising cost of drug development, the abysmal success rate of clinical trials, and excessive hype that has turned a lot of friends on Wall Street into cynics over the years.
How can New England entrepreneurs navigate this minefield to create a more vibrant life sciences scene for years to come? We are gathering some of the savviest—and most successful—biotech players around to discuss that theme at the annual Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology & Entrepreneurship (XSITE) on June 17th at Babson College.
Biotech will take the center stage early in the day, in a keynote chat featuring the leaders of two billion-dollar publicly traded biotech companies—Alkermes CEO Richard Pops and Ironwood Pharmaceuticals CEO Peter Hecht.
Pops seems to be everywhere you look in biotech. He’s been at the helm of Waltham, MA-based Alkermes (NASDAQ: ALKS) for almost two decades, he’s on the board of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and he advises a couple of hot local startups in Acceleron Pharma and Epizyme. The guy knows how to distill his observations into a colorful phrase. He’s even bold enough to have started a Twitter account (@popsalks) when it gave his corporate lawyers the shivers.
I haven’t yet found Hecht microblogging his thoughts anywhere, but he couldn’t even if he wanted to for a few months when he was in an SEC-mandated quiet period. All eyes in biotech were on him earlier this year when Cambridge, MA-based Ironwood (NASDAQ: IRWD) pulled off an IPO that established an initial market valuation of $1.1 billion. This wasn’t as high as the company forecasted, and the stock has traded down a bit since the IPO on February 3. But if you listen to Hecht, the IPO isn’t just some deal that will enable him to cash out, it’s just a step in a journey of building a great company.
The conversation between these two biotech leaders will be moderated by Jean-Francois Formela, a partner at Atlas Venture in Boston, and an astute observer of the world of life sciences startups. Formela, a partner with Atlas since 1993, has been involved in starting a number of successful biotech companies—Adnexus Therapeutics, ArQule, and Exelixis, for starters.
Later in the afternoon, we’re planning to convene a breakout session titled “When One Product Won’t Cut it: The Return of Biotech Platforms.” This panel will include CEOs at companies that are built on the idea of an enabling technology that can act like an engine for producing a variety of products, not just a one-hit wonder.
“Platforms” were in style during the genomics boom of a decade ago, until investors realized most of these were really dressed-up science experiments that were a long way from generating valuable products, if they ever would. In response, the idea of in-licensing safer “late-stage product candidates” took hold for a while. But after a lot of boring, ho-hum returns, a lot of venture investors, particularly in New England, again are yearning for the home-run potential offered by an enabling platform technology.
The panel we’ve gathered to talk about the return of platforms includes Katrine Bosley of Avila Therapeutics, Roger Tung of Concert Pharmaceuticals, Dan Junius of ImmunoGen, and Julie Olson of Mersana Therapeutics. This conversation will be moderated by one of Big Pharma’s top local biotech scouts—Michelle Dipp, the vice president and head of the US Center for Excellence in External Drug Discovery at GlaxoSmithKline.
Now’s the part where you come in. We do not plan to just let these people sit up front and blah-blah from some script written by a committee. I am personally flying in from my home in Seattle to help you pose a few sharp inquiries of your own to these distinguished speakers.
So come ready to think big about the long-term future for Boston biotech. Be sure to stick around for some refreshments and networking afterward to keep the conversation going. And if you’re a regular reader, new to Xconomy, or an entrepreneur with a great idea, I’d love to hear from you personally about what more we can do through our journalism and events to provide the connective tissue that the regional innovation community needs to thrive.