Ex-Genentecher Kelsey Grabs Reins at Moderna’s Onkaido Therapeutics

Xconomy Boston — 

Moderna Therapeutics’ master plan is to whip up a slew of startups to help develop the messenger RNA, or mRNA drugs it creates. Today, it’s picked a former Genentech executive to lead the first of those companies, Onkaido Therapeutics.

Moderna is announcing today that Stephen Kelsey has been named president of Onkaido, a startup that was incubated within the walls of the Cambridge, MA-based parent company to develop a group of its mRNA cancer drug candidates. Kelsey is taking over the head seat from Peter F. Hoge, Moderna’s senior vice president of corporate development, who has served as Onkaido’s interim CEO since it launched. Kelsey will now become the head of the first of what Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told me recently would be several startups to come out of Moderna as part of a strategic shift the company has undergone over the past year or so.

“It is a huge privilege to be invited to lead Onkaido,” Kelsey said in a statement. “Moderna’s mRNA platform holds great potential for many therapeutic areas but especially for oncology, a field with many targets still undiscovered. With mRNA Therapeutics, we have the opportunity to rapidly develop new cancer therapies that address unmet medical needs currently untreatable by existing approaches.”

The gig has intrigued Kelsey so much he’s moving across the country to take it on, after executive stints at three Bay Area biotechs. From 2002 to 2009, Kelsey was the executive vice president of South San Francisco, CA-based Genentech’s oncology portfolio, where he played a role in the development of cancer drugs like pertuzumab (Perjeta) and T-DM1 (Kadcyla). Then he moved on to Menlo Park, CA-based Geron (NASDAQ: GERN), where he was the executive vice president of R&D and later chief medical officer for four years. He was hired as San Francisco-based Medivation’s (NASDAQ: MDVN) senior vice president of new projects in 2013.

Now Kelsey will set up shop in Cambridge with Onkaido. The startup is the prototype for “Moderna Venture Incubator Laboratories,” an in-house unit set up with a small team of scientists to test various ideas with the company’s mRNA drug candidates. Should those ideas appear promising, Moderna will use one of two approaches to develop them as drugs. One is to license the IP out to strategic partners. The other is to hive off startups—what it calls “ventures”—to develop them. Moderna, for instance, created Onkaido in January around 15 cancer drug candidates that had been in preclinical testing at Moderna and poured $20 million into the venture.

Moderna currently owns all of Onkaido’s stock, though that could change should Onkaido progress. Bancel told Xconomy recently that Moderna could do a variety of things with the startup, like bring in other investors, form a partnership, sell it, or take it public—or it could just maintain ownership of the company.

Kelsey will start on July 21. It’s a big challenge. For all its potential, Moderna’s plan to make injectable mRNA molecules that trigger the production of protein drugs within the body is unproven. And none of the mRNA drug candidates coming out of Moderna, or now Onkaido, have begun testing in clinical trials. Kelsey will head the task to see if those candidates can hit previously undruggable targets to treat cancer.

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