The Art of Perseverance: Meet Xconomy’s Six CEO Award Finalists

Xconomy Boston — 

The Xconomy Awards are back, and today we’re kicking things off by taking a look at our first set of finalists—the top Boston biotech CEOs nominated by you, the readers.

We’ve gone through all the nominations and come up with six finalists. Some of these CEOs have withstood years of ups and downs to take their companies to new heights. Others have helped pave the way to market for new methods of drugmaking, like gene therapy.

The winner of this and the other award categories will be announced at a gala on Wednesday September 5 in Boston at the Hynes Convention Center.

And the finalists are…

Jeff Jonas
Neuroscience is a field littered with clinical failures, but Sage Therapeutics so far has managed to beat the odds. Jeff Jonas, a former Shire executive, came aboard to lead the Third Rock Ventures startup in 2013 and has built it into a publicly traded company currently worth almost $8 billion and with shares that are nearly 10 times their 2014 IPO price. Much of that value has been created over the last year. In November 2017, the company hit its mark in a Phase 3 study of a drug that could be the first ever approved drug for postpartum depression. A month later, it followed up with success in a placebo-controlled trial of a second drug, for major depressive disorder, setting the stage for a highly anticipated late stage trial. If successful and approved, this drug could be the first drug with a new mechanism of action for depression in 20 years—and possibly the first ever depression drug meant to be taken for a short, two-week course.

Jeff Leiden
Speaking with Xconomy a few years ago, Jeff Leiden, the CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), called it a “neck-snapping phenomenon.” During a three-year period, Vertex’s only marketed drug, for hepatitis C, had gone from generating nearly $1 billion in annual revenue to being steamrolled by competition and pulled from the market in 2014. But Vertex absorbed the blow and has since prospered and finally became profitable because it reshaped itself, on the fly, to become the market leader in cystic fibrosis. Since 2012, Vertex has brought three CF drugs to market. More combination regimens are likely on the way that could allow Vertex to treat up to 90 percent of patients with the disease—and fend off the type of competition that destroyed its hepatitis C business. Leiden, named Vertex CEO in 2011, has earned a nomination for overseeing the company’s transformation, which has taken its shares to all-time highs this year.

Nick Leschly
When Nick Leschly left Third Rock Ventures to run Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) eight years ago, it was a fledgling startup pursuing a field of science, gene therapy, that had been all but abandoned by Big Pharma. Since then, gene therapy has undergone a renaissance, and Bluebird has been a key player in its re-emergence. A Bluebird gene therapy for the blood disease beta thalassemia—a program that has helped validate the approach in humans—has helped some patients stave off blood transfusions for years, and is showing promise in sickle cell disease as well. Other Bluebird gene and cell therapies for childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy and multiple myeloma continue to progress. And Leschly was able to steer Bluebird through some rocky moments, making some key tweaks to its technology in 2016 after some early disappointing results. Now firmly established as a gene therapy leader, Bluebird shares are worth nearly 10 times their $17 per share IPO price in 2013.

John Maraganore
John Maraganore has lived the near two-decade long journey of turning RNA interference (RNAi), a method of preventing genes from producing harmful proteins, into human medicines. As the CEO of the field’s largest company, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: [[ticker: ALNY]]), Maraganore is finally on the precipice of seeing all the hard work pay off. He has been the CEO of Alnylam since 2002, and has successfully maneuvered the company to survive the field’s ups and downs. In its early days, Alnylam gobbled up as much RNAi intellectual property as possible, then used the early RNAi hype to sign a variety of partnerships. That cash enabled Alnylam to stay afloat when the biopharma industry largely abandoned the technology. The company was also able to buy enough time to solve its biggest problem—figuring out how to deliver large RNA molecules safely to target tissues in the body. It now appears RNAi has come of age, and Alnylam will be its standard bearer. In 2017, patisiran, for transthyretin amyloidosis, became the first-ever RNAi drug to succeed in a Phase 3 trial, and could soon win FDA approval. Alnylam has two other RNAi medicines behind patisiran in late stage testing.

Anna Protopapas
Mersana Therapeutics, a developer of antibody-drug conjugates, had been around for 13 years and was still a preclinical, privately held company when Anna Protopapas took over in 2015 as CEO. That has all changed. In 2016, she expanded an existing alliance with Takeda. (She is no stranger to Takeda—she was a top Millennium Pharmaceuticals executive when Takeda bought it in 2008.) She then steered Mersana to the public markets, raising $75 million in an IPO in June 2017, and has since sharpened the company’s clinical strategy to focus on areas where other drugs haven’t worked or have previously failed. One Mersana drug, for example, is being tested in patients whose tumors only express low to medium levels of HER2 protein. The other targets tumors that express NaP12b, which is implicated in lung and ovarian cancers. Mersana just presented its first results in humans at a major cancer meeting, put on by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Leslie Williams
ImmusanT has spent eight years on an audacious quest to develop the first-ever vaccine for celiac disease. Leslie Williams has led it from the start, and her efforts have recently ramped up. After taking what Williams termed in 2017 a “methodical approach” through four Phase 1 tests over several years, ImmusanT last year unveiled a potential blood-based diagnostic for celiac—an alternative to the “gluten challenge” patients have to undergo for weeks. It also got the cash, $40 million in Series C funding secured late last year from Arch Venture Partners and Vatera Healthcare Partners, to bring the vaccine, known as NexVax2, into Phase 2 tests this year. With this backing, ImmusanT will conduct those critical studies, as well as others in different autoimmune diseases, like Type 1 diabetes.