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Startup Builders, IPO Closers & More: Meet Xconomy’s CEO Award Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

There are many ways to stand out as a biotech CEO, from getting a company started in the first place to pushing its first drug over the finish line. Those differences are what we noticed when going through the nominations from you, the readers, for the top Boston biotech CEO, as part of the first-ever Xconomy Awards.

Together with a panel of judges—a group of 11 Boston-area life sciences veterans—we’ve combed through all the entries to come up with the seven finalists we found most compelling. This is a diverse group of CEOs representing companies at different points in their biotech lives. One CEO was lauded for the grit and determination it took for her to start her company and push it forward. Another saved a company by winning a controversial drug approval.

The winners will be named at a gala on Sept. 26. And the finalists are…

COMPANY BUILDERS

Paula Ragan, X4 Pharmaceuticals

It’s easy to evaluate the CEO of a publicly traded company. You need different metrics to judge performance in the private sector. Climbing through the ranks to launch and build a company is a tall order in its own right. And that’s what readers have told us about Paula Ragan, CEO of X4 Pharmaceuticals.

Ragan is a Genzyme veteran and a disciple of Henri Termeer, the late former CEO of the rare disease giant. She worked her way up at Genzyme to lead the partnering efforts for its big rare disease business. When Sanofi bought Genzyme in 2011, she saw a drug program get shelved that she thought might prove useful for cancer immunotherapy. So she left Genzyme in 2012, and two years later cut a deal to license the drug and started her own company around it, X4 Pharmaceuticals. Fast-forward to 2017 and Ragan has already raised a $37.5 million Series A round—Termeer was a co-founder and investor, before his passing in May—and now has a pipeline of drug candidates, three of which are in clinical testing for cancer and rare diseases.

“Paula embodies the drive, vision and charisma to lead a startup company,” says one reader who nominated her.

Rene Russo, Arsanis

The need for new antibiotics to battle deadly drug-resistant infections is growing each year, but developing them is a tough sell for startups. Antibiotics just don’t command the same pricing power that, say, cancer immunotherapy drugs do, making financial rewards unclear. And the regulatory goalposts have changed over the years. Pressing forward and convincing investors to buy in isn’t easy.

That’s one of the reasons readers have nominated Rene Russo, the CEO of a startup, Arsanis, which is developing a treatment for deadly bacterial and viral infections. Russo, a 15-year veteran of Bristol-Myers Squibb and Cubist (the antibiotics giant Merck acquired in 2014), came to Arsanis in 2015 as chief development officer. She was promoted to president and CEO within a year after spearheading the company’s clinical development plan. Since taking up that post, she’s helped get Arsanis’s lead drug into Phase 2 trials, earned a fast-track designation from the FDA—a tool used to speed up the review of an experimental therapy—and raised a roughly $46 million round in April from a broad group, among them the venture arms of Google and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.  “She is clearly one of the brightest new CEOs we have in the Boston area,” says one reader.

FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC: IPO NAVIGATORS

Katrine Bosley, Editas Medicine

It’s tough to succeed once in biotech. Try doing it twice, while trying to develop the first ever human therapeutic using a controversial, cutting-edge technology—CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. That’s the formidable project Katrine Bosley took on. Her progress so far has earned her a spot on our finalist list.

After leading and later selling Avila Therapeutics for $925 million to Celgene in 2012 and a short stay at the Broad Institute, Bosley took over Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT) in 2014. Editas was the first of a group of new gene-editing companies, and Bosley has been at the helm as it has navigated from super-hyped startup to first ever publicly traded CRISPR-Cas9 drug developer. Soon after she came aboard, Bosley helped raise $120 million from an all-star cast, a round that laid the groundwork for a $94 million IPO in 2016. That foundation has put Editas in position to possibly be the first U.S. company to test CRISPR-Cas9 drugs in human beings next year.

Nancy Simonian, Syros Pharmaceuticals

Simonian is a true Boston life sciences veteran, starting out at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital before crossing to industry for roles at Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) and Millennium Pharmaceuticals. But readers nominated Simonian for her work growing a startup, Syros Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SYRS), into a public company on the verge of its biggest tests yet.

Simonian has helped build a platform that the company has claimed can find drug targets others can’t—a “lens,” Simonian has said, to look into how genes are regulated and go awry in disease. Using that, the company is developing drugs that control the regulation of genes involved in disease. Along the way Syros raised over $120 million in private cash, another $58 million in an IPO, and now has two drugs in clinical testing. Readers nominated Simonian for those and other reasons. “Her leadership style is one of openness and collaboration,” says one.

The task ahead for Simonian is to prove that all this work can lead to an effective drug; Phase 2 data for Syros’s leukemia treatment, SYR-1425, are expected in the fall.

Jeff Albers, Blueprint Medicines

This past year, for the first time, the FDA approved a cancer therapy to treat tumors with a specific genetic signature, regardless of where in the body they originated. It was a landmark decision, a victory for the drug’s developer, Merck (NYSE: MRK), and the latest step forward for precision medicine. But the advance also bodes well for others with similar ideas, among them Blueprint Medicines (NASDAQ: BPMC), which is developing drugs for subgroups of patients with genomically defined cancers. Its CEO, Jeff Albers, is among our nominees.

Albers, a former Algeta executive, took over Blueprint in July 2014 when it was privately held, had gone through two CEOs in a year, and didn’t have a drug in clinical testing. He assembled the investor base for a $50 million crossover round, followed that up by forging partnerships with Alexion Pharmaceuticals and Roche, and led Blueprint to a $169 million IPO in April 2015. The company has doubled in size, has three drugs in clinical testing, and is currently worth close to three times its $18 IPO price. Shares have also doubled over the past year.

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

Ed Kaye, Sarepta Therapeutics

In September 2016, the FDA approved Sarepta Therapeutics’s (NASDAQ: [[ticker:SRPT]) Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug eteplirsen (Exondys 51), largely off of evidence from a tiny, 12-person clinical trial. The decision was so controversial that it caused a rift within the highest levels of the agency.

We likely won’t know for a few more years whether the FDA made a great decision or a colossal blunder by approving eteplirsen, the first ever approved Duchenne drug. Setting that question aside though, Ed Kaye, who shifted from Sarepta’s chief medical officer to CEO in 2015, guided the company through a particularly volatile time to get eteplirsen over the finish line. Sarepta’s relationship with the FDA was in tatters at the time, and it desperately needed a win. As Kaye told Xconomy last year, Sarepta would’ve had to scrap eteplirsen, cut a bunch of jobs, and essentially become a preclinical company again if it had failed to gain FDA approval. But Kaye was able to strengthen Sarepta’s relationship with the agency, and steer the company to its first approval instead. Now Sarepta has the money to develop other Duchenne treatments, and just had its best sales quarter to date. And Kaye is a big reason why. The caveat to his nomination: Kaye stepped aside in June.

Lonnie Moulder, Tesaro

One strategy has picked up steam in biotech circles over the years: Assemble a veteran group of drug hunters, and have them find and acquire assets from elsewhere and successfully develop them. That sounds great on paper, but it hasn’t often been executed in practice. Tesaro (NASDAQ: TSRO) is showing what happens when the plan works, and that has earned its CEO a nomination from readers.

Lonnie Moulder is a veteran of MGI Pharma, which was sold to Eisai for $3.9 billion in 2008. In 2010, Moulder and former MGI colleague Mary Lynne Hedley signed on to lead Tesaro; he as CEO, she as president and chief operating officer. The plan: Sift through the vast universe of experimental cancer drugs to find and acquire treatments that may have fallen through the cracks, and develop them. Seven years later, Tesaro is a publicly traded company with two approved drugs and a market capitalization of $7 billion. In March, one of those drugs, niraparib (Zejula), became the first ever “maintenance” therapy approved for ovarian cancer, meaning it’s used to help keep cancers from recurring. Tesaro’s shares are now trading nearly 10 times their IPO price in 2012, and have nearly tripled in value since May 2016.