Dealmaker, Thought Leader & More: The X of the Year Xconomy Award Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

Given the size and diversity of the life sciences community in the Boston area, we at Xconomy knew that many candidates would be so unique that they wouldn’t fit neatly into a category. So we gave them a category of their own. These finalists represent the wide range of talent—from investors to entrepreneurs and thought-leaders—that together make the Boston biotech hub such a strong one. The winner of this and the other categories of the Xconomy Awards will be announced in Boston at the Awards Gala on September 26.

Adventurer – Deborah Dunsire
Deborah Dunsire spent nearly 20 years of her career at large public companies, eight of those years as CEO and president of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which is now a unit of Takeda. Since then she’s embarked on a few adventures. First, in 2013, she took the helm of Forum Pharmaceuticals, an unusual, privately held company backed exclusively by Fidelity, which was bankrolling massive Phase 3 clinical trials for an experimental Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia drug. Dunsire guided the effort, grew the company, and along the way was hoping to broaden Forum’s investor base and pursue an IPO if the drug came through. It didn’t, however. The drug failed one trial, and safety problems doomed another. Dunsire left Forum shortly before the company closed its doors for good in 2016. Now she’s leading a small, two-year-old startup that is at least a year away from human trials. She told Xconomy earlier this year: “I’ve run companies that have a lot of profit, companies that are just turning profitable, and companies that have tremendous resources behind [them],” Dunsire says. “Now it’s time to learn something different.”

Closer – Anna Protopapas
As an executive at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Anna Protopapas spearheaded many deals to bolster its pipeline during the 2000s. She also helped cinch Millennium’s biggest deal of all, its $8.8 billion buyout by Takeda in 2008. Her ability to close deals drew the attention of the Japanese pharma giant, which asked Protopapas to oversee business development for the entire company. Among the deals she led for Takeda was the 2011, $12 billion acquisition of Switzerland-based Nycomed. Two years later, she was named Millennium’s president, replacing Dunsire.

In 2015, Protopapas became president and CEO of Mersana Therapeutics, a biotech startup toiling away for more than a decade as a private company while trying to develop antibody-drug conjugates, a type of cancer drug. With Protopapas at the helm, the company raised $33 million in a Series C round and started its first clinical trials, all in 2016. Protopapas then steered Mersana to a $75 million initial public offering in June.

Community Contribution – Rob Perez
Rob Perez founded the nonprofit Life Science Cares (LSC) in 2016 out of a drive to do more to contribute to the Boston community. LSC raises money from companies and individuals in the life sciences community and donates it to nonprofits that LSC has vetted and partnered with for their work in fighting poverty in Boston. LSC also connects volunteers from industry with these nonprofit partners. “We want to feed the hungry and help educate young people who have just as much promise as those in the suburbs,” says Perez, who is LSC’s chairman, and the former CEO (and COO and president before that) of Cubist Pharmaceuticals before Merck bought it in 2015. “We have a community within life sciences who care deeply about humanity. Our vision is to tap into that energy and resource.”

One of LSC’s nonprofit partners is Food For Free, which collects fresh food that would otherwise be wasted and distributes it to food pantries and other emergency food programs. Sarah MacDonald, LSC’s executive director, brought the nonprofit together with large companies in Kendall Square—Sanofi, Novartis, and Takeda—which are now donating leftover food from their cafeterias. From Sanofi alone, that has been enough to provide 20 to 50 meals a week, MacDonald says.

Dealmaker – Noubar Afeyan
Noubar Afeyan has been creating startups since he was 24, and now has more than 35 life science and technology companies under his belt. He founded Flagship Ventures in 2000 (renamed Flagship Pioneering in 2016) and has grown it to become one of the leading venture capital firms in the Boston area. Afeyan and his firm are known to make big bets in risky fields of science. This is perhaps best illustrated by the firm’s incubation of the secretive, high-flying Moderna Therapeutics. The startup aims to develop messenger RNA therapies, an unproven drugmaking method. Yet while remaining private, the firm has twice raised record fundraising rounds, reportedly has a valuation north of $5 billion, and has inked partnerships with several large pharmaceutical companies.

Flagship was a founding investor of Denali Therapeutics, a huge bet on new neurodegenerative disease treatments that raised a whopping $217 million Series A round in 2015 and another $130 million in Series B cash last year. As Afeyan told Xconomy in 2015 about Flagship’s investment in Denali, “It’s certainly the most sizeable [investment Flagship has ever made in neurodegeneration], and it’s certainly the first in a long time. We’ve been very [reluctant] to be in this area for all the reasons that have caused many pharma companies to get out of the area. But for us, we don’t mind being contrarian when the conditions are ripe, and we think that this has a pretty interesting potential to be disruptive in an area where the need is huge.” Flagship also founded the first microbiome company to go public, Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB).

Xport – Vicki Sato
After a long, illustrious career in various leadership positions across the Boston biotech scene—at Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB), Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), and then Harvard Business School—Vicki Sato is making yet another career switch. As a Boston life science export to New York (she splits her time between the two cities), she is bringing her expertise to the Big Apple to help spur the city’s long-flagging biotech ambitions along. In 2016, she was tapped to co-chair an advisory committee for LifeSci NYC, a 10-year, $500 million government-funded plan to grow the life sciences industry in New York City. The initiative is still in its earliest stages; one of its most notable accomplishments so far is the backing of a new biotech incubator that started up in June at an NYU Langone Medical Center facility in lower Manhattan. But Sato says that is just the start. The incubator will start hosting companies by the end of this year, and Sato says more announcements are on the way. “We are very excited about the growing momentum for biotech in New York,” she says.

Tech/Healthcare Connector – Deborah DiSanzo
IBM is betting big that its Watson supercomputer and “cognitive computing” will transform healthcare. It formed its Watson Health business in 2015 and hired Deborah DiSanzo—former CEO of Philips Healthcare—to be its general manager. Over the last two years, IBM has been beefing up its A.I. capabilities through more than $4 billion in acquisitions of healthcare-computing companies. DiSanzo has led her 2,000-member group in forming partnerships with a myriad of organizations in healthcare and life sciences, from imaging and diagnostic companies to care providers and major academic research centers, to get access to the troves of health-related data it needs to make its technology smarter. While it’s not clear how much A.I. will live up to the hype in changing medicine, DiSanzo and Watson Health have been aggressive in building bridges between the worlds of technology and healthcare.

Thought Leader – Kenneth Kaitin
Kaitin was profiled in an article earlier this week about the Awards finalists involved in the drug pricing debate.

This is the ninth in a series of articles profiling the Awards finalists. You can see stories on the finalists involved in the drug pricing debate, and in the Big Idea, Contrarian, NewcomerPatient PartnershipCommitment to DiversityYoung InnovatorStartup, and CEO categories. Winners will be announced in Boston on September 26 at the Awards Gala.