[Updated 11:30 a.m. 5/16. See below.] Success in life sciences is always a team effort. Often, those doing the heavy lifting do so behind the scenes, without much external recognition of their role. To celebrate these hidden stars, we created the Secret Weapon category for the Xconomy Awards San Diego. The finalists in this category play an outsize role in their respective organizations, accelerating the firms toward their goals. Here are brief profiles of the finalists.
This is part of a series of articles about the finalists for the Xconomy Awards San Diego. We’ve written about the CEO, Commitment to Diversity, Innovation at the Intersection, Digital Trailblazer, Startup, and X of the Year finalists. We’ve also highlighted our Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Ivor Royston. Stay tuned for coverage of the other finalists.
Jessica Corson, Mirati Therapeutics
The science underway at Mirati Therapeutics is complex. So are the strategic moves it has made in developing targeted cancer drugs. Jessica Corson, senior director of business development at the biotech, has crafted a slew of deals with innovative structures to ensure continued funding of its efforts.
Corson, employee #3 at the immuno-oncology company, played a significant role in the 2013 relaunch of the company.
Soon after, she set up a collaboration with Array BioPharma in 2014 that led to the discovery of a KRAS inhibitor, which targets a notoriously “undruggable” cancer target. Through the partnership, the startup received access to high-quality chemistry and X-ray crystallography capabilities—resources it couldn’t have otherwise afforded at the time, when it had fewer than 10 people on staff.
Later, Corson started talks with Foundation Medicine and other next-generation genome sequencing companies that resulted in the creation of the first genomically directed patient referral programs, to help match rare disease patients with relevant Mirati clinical trials.
Then, in 2018, she brokered a partnership with China’s BeiGene that allowed Mirati to leverage BeiGene’s clinical development capabilities and funding, and expand its proof-of-concept clinical data by testing its drugs in thousands of cancer patients in China. And earlier this year, Corson helped structure a deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) that saved Mirati $30 million on a Phase 3 combination study. The collaboration gave Mirati free access to the pharma’s cancer drug nivolumab (Opdivo).
Athena Countouriotis, Turning Point Therapeutics
At Turning Point Therapeutics, there’s the era before Athena Countouriotis, and then there’s the one after. The biotech is developing targeted cancer drugs called kinase inhibitors that it says may help treat patients who have developed resistance to other therapies. The firm brought Countouriotis onboard in May 2018. It needed someone who could define its clinical development path and raise funds. She’s delivered on both accounts.
Countouriotis, who joined the company as its chief medical officer, helped bring its lead drug candidate, repotrectinib, to Phase 1 testing. However, nominators wrote that the leadership she provided in setting strategy, building, and aligning an experienced team to generate results went well beyond her work on the company’s clinical programs.
Her efforts also helped the company line up an $80 million infusion of capital in a crossover financing round. Just a few months after joining the company, Countouriotis was promoted to CEO. This year she led the company to the public markets, raising $166.5 million. The company later announced its underwriters had bought nearly 1.4 million more shares, increasing total proceeds to $191.5 million. [Updated with details of underwriters’s share purchases.]
Kyle Gano, Neurocrine Biosciences
Kyle Gano, a PhD chemist with an MBA, currently heads business development and strategy at Neurocrine Biosciences. But in the mid-2000s, he played a pivotal role in the discovery of the company’s first drug, valbenazine (Ingrezza), the first FDA-approved treatment for tardive dyskinesia, a movement disorder.
His idea, which surfaced during a brainstorming session, highlights Gano’s involvement with Neurocrine’s scientific pipeline in addition to his leadership in its strategic research and commercial partnerships.
Even though Gano heads up business development, his team devotes part of its time to research efforts. He has helped build Neurocrine’s pipeline through internal discovery and strategic business development activities, including playing a role in the development of elagolix (Orilissa), which the company has commercialized in partnership with AbbVie as a treatment for endometriosis.
Gary O’Neill, Abide Therapeutics
A chief scientific officer can be forgiven for focusing narrowly on company R&D. But Gary O’Neill isn’t that kind of CSO. While he has authored dozens of peer-reviewed papers, he’s best known internally for his team-building skills.
He joined the company in 2013 as vice president of biology. Before that, he was with Merck for 20 years, spending some of that time leading the research center in Boston and overseeing the pharma’s preclinical respiratory, immunology and oncology drug discovery programs.
At Abide, O’Neill is known for managing by walking around (sometimes with candy in hand to share) and visiting with his team. Although he has “chief” in his title, he has been seen personally carrying out biohazard waste for disposal. Nominators wrote that O’Neill enjoys highlighting the successes of others on his team and that his relationship-building prowess has been key to his success in drawing out the best in colleagues at the company.
Sara Pagano, Biocom Institute
Academic institutions in San Diego mint thousands of new STEM grads every year. But a passion for science and engineering often blossoms in children long before they reach higher education. Inspiring interest in such topics at a young age can put someone on a STEM career path.
That’s the intent of Sara Pagano, who manages the annual San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering. The week-long event launched 11 years ago—one of the few STEM festivals in the country at the time. Pagano, as managing director of the event, is responsible for drawing in the dozens of businesses and organizations that offer the resources needed to bring to life the activities, hands-on exhibits, and programs that take place during the week.
The community-wide event, which aims to inspire the tens of thousands of people who attend, was the brainchild of late biotech entrepreneur Larry Bock. Today it’s a program of the Biocom Institute, a nonprofit arm of the trade association. (Editor’s note: Joe Panetta, Biocom’s President and CEO and one of the Xconomy Awards judges, did not judge this category.)
Pagano’s behind-the-scenes efforts to prompt countywide participation are a key reason why so many children, parents, teachers, industry leaders, and other members of the community come to the festival each year.
David Urso, MEI Pharma
David Urso wears many hats at MEI Pharma. The executive leads operations and corporate development and also serves as its general counsel.
These roles are typically not publicly lauded when a biotech achieves success. But nominators told us that at MEI, Urso’s fingerprints are on nearly all of its achievements.
In the past five years at the company, Urso has facilitated the development of its oncology pipeline, which now includes four clinical-stage candidates; inked valuable in-licensing deals; and arranged strategic partnerships.
Nominators wrote that Urso’s experiences—and his ability to seamlessly meld them together—allow him to handle tasks that typically would take the work of three people at MEI.