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Elliott Sigal, Bristol’s Former R&D Chief, on Life After Big Pharma

Xconomy New York — 

Less than a year ago, Elliott Sigal, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s R&D chief for nearly a decade, stunned the industry. After a lengthy run that saw Bristol morph from a slogging, multifaceted healthcare conglomerate with its fingers in everything from AIDS drugs to baby formula, to a sleeker, pure play biopharmaceutical company, Sigal abruptly walked away in April 2013.

“I envision an active retirement,” he said on a conference call with investors at the time.

Nearly a year later, Sigal is starting to show what he had in mind. Sigal is now dabbling in several areas of the life sciences world, from venture firms, to startups, to Big Biotechs. In January, Sigal joined investment firm New Enterprise Associates as a venture partner and senior advisor. It’s essentially a part-time gig that’ll enable him to advise NEA’s healthcare team on its investments, and in some cases help the executive teams of the firm’s portfolio companies. At the same time, he also began doing some consulting work for the research division of Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), the biotech powerhouse best known for its anemia drugs. He’s since joined the board of a recently-formed gene therapy startup, Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics, adding to similar board roles he already holds at Bristol spinout Mead Johnson Nutrition and the Melanoma Research Alliance, a non-profit group. More appointments may be on the way. And Sigal says he’s taking a long look at a different type of advisory role, one where he could help scientists bridge the gap between basic research and potential drug candidates—a translational gap that’s commonly called the “valley of death,” when academic projects can’t get the funding needed to become true partnership or investment opportunities for VC’s and drugmakers.

“I’m in my early 60s,” Sigal says. “I’m not done, except with a big operational role. And I love the biomedical ecosystem.”

It’s a return to the old days, in a way, for Sigal. He served on the faculty of the UCSF Department of Medicine before leaping to industry in 1992. Sigal rose through the ranks at smaller companies—Syntex (acquired by Roche in 1994) and later the genomics company Mercator Genetics before joining Bristol in 1997. He became Bristol’s chief scientific officer and R&D head in 2004, and is perhaps best known there for helping champion a plan to align the company with a number of biotechs through licensing deals and small to mid-size buyouts, an initiative dubbed the “string of pearls” plan. In late 2012, The Wall Street Journal called him the best R&D chief in pharma.

Still, as is the case for every R&D chief, it wasn’t all rosy for Sigal at Bristol. Some deals were successes, like Bristol’s $2.4 billion buyout of Princeton, NJ-based Medarex in 2009, which it can now largely thank for a leading position in the white-hot field of immuno-oncology. Others fizzled, like the $2.5 billion deal for Atlanta-based Inhibitex in 2012. Bristol was hoping for a gem of a hepatitis C treatment, like the one Gilead Sciences got when it paid $11 billion for Pharmasset in 2011. Instead, Bristol-Myers soon found out the Inhibitex drug had safety problems and bombed in clinical trials, leading to a big write-off.

Elliott Sigal

Elliott Sigal, former executive vice president and chief scientific officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb

Now that he no longer has to answer to investors for his every move, Sigal’s feeling a lot looser these days. He does a lot of work from his home in Princeton, is building a house on the West Coast, and says he can now spend more time with his family (“I’m very accessible, even when I’m physically there, I’m more accessible I’m told,” he jokes). But Sigal’s also adamant about staying close to biotech innovation, and helping other scientific entrepreneurs succeed. I spoke with Sigal about life after Big Pharma, the new science he’s homing in on, and the lessons he’s learned about biotech entrepreneurship along the way. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

Xconomy: When you left Bristol, how did you plan your next move?

Elliott Sigal: I spent six months of reflection thinking about where a good place was to put some time. But from the beginning, I wanted to be an advisor to the next generation of leaders and companies, and to have a portfolio of advisory relationships that span R&D from the beginning through the large company. The best advice I got in those months was, to be successful, you have to have a certain amount of tunnel vision. This was my opportunity to bring the peripheral vision into focus. What is out there that maybe is adjacent to what I was doing before, that I can contribute to, that’s very interesting, and that I want to be a part of? So the small company environment, the patient foundation, the academic relationships with biopharmaceuticals, some of the venture world—those are things I’m trying to capture in my new ecosystem.

X: Why did you choose these first two advisory roles with NEA and Amgen?

ES: [With NEA], I can see a lot of the interesting biotech deals in the early formation/discovery space that I’m used to following, but do so in a very concentrated way, and align myself with a very respectable, very strong venture group that’s made it through the shakeout and has become even stronger. At the other end of the spectrum, Amgen’s senior leadership, including the head of R&D [Sean Harper], wanted to consult with somebody who has been through a lot of battles and has, in their words, “accomplished a lot in a tough environment.” It’s a sweet spot of mine to be able to think about corporate strategy, R&D interaction (with commercial R&D changing over time), business model changes, portfolio analysis. So I’m available to them to do what they would like me to think about as an advisor. Those two platforms [NEA and Amgen] bracket the R&D space. And I’ll carefully pick non-conflicting situations that I think are distinctive in how they can impact medicine.

X: So you have no interest in going back to a full-time job again?

ES: That’s my feeling now. R&D chiefs sometime change their mind—Roger Perlmutter finished 10 years at Amgen, and then jumped to Merck. I considered things of that nature, but at my stage of life, I’d like to pick and choose the people, the projects, and hope my experience helps them do what they’re doing.

X: Why did you choose a gene therapy company like Spark as your first biotech board role?

ES: I was burned by gene therapy as a Big Pharma guy about 15 years ago. Many of us stopped investing and betting on it. It went into hibernation, [but continued on] at places like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which funded what’s turned out to be a very successful program and team [at Spark]. I think what we were missing back then was the identification of good targets that have [since] come out of genomics, plus a refinement of how to deliver gene therapy, where it’s best to deliver it, and how to deliver it with improved viral vectors. All of this kind of came together at the [CHOP]. And instead of licensing all of this [out], the [CHOP] spun out a company. The application of gene therapy to cure blindness in both children and adults in a rare [inherited] disease first—with perhaps a broader application—is, I think, going to be a very important contribution to medicine. I’ve seen the videos of some of these scientists who were at the [CHOP], and now at Spark, essentially enabling a child to see, and to integrate from Braille classes to mainstream schools. It’s quite remarkable. So, I see a pipeline there, a new technology, and an interesting business model.

X: What else do you hope to accomplish professionally with your newfound time?

ES: The ecosystem has several other interesting things going on. One is interaction between academic groups around the country that want to translate some of their science, and keep ahold of it a little bit longer before it goes out for licensing or company formation. And some VCs have shied away from funding that early space. So I find that an interesting challenge. I have not selected what type of advisory role I’d take there, but that’s a possibility.

X: What type of questions are you getting?

ES: I think what I’m getting consulted for the most is, have you seen something like this before? And what have you learned on the regulatory front, the medical front, the interaction with commercial, for example, or when to invest in a discovery program, and things of that nature. The string of pearls initiative…has drawn me closer to the innovative, entrepreneurial world of biotech. And I’ve seen it from the pharma side, and a lot of people want to know, what’s that all about?

X: Through your dealmaking experience at Big Pharma, what were some of the mistakes you’d see small biotechs make?

ES: With the confidence of treading in unknown territories, sometimes comes a little bit of arrogance of what you can accomplish on your own. That’s true for all of us. And I would say the smart biotech leader realizes when they can and should take on something their own, when they can partner, when they can bring other people in. They recognize the cycles the industry has, and when things are good, they may not be good forever. You take the money sometimes when it’s on the table, for example—this IPO market may not continue forever.

X: What are the biggest red flags in a biotech?

ES: The real X-factor sometimes, the real key ingredient, the must-have, is the quality of the leadership, the quality of the people. It’s sometimes a hard thing to assess fully, but it’s a big red flag if you’re really not sure of how you come down on that.

X: What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make so far?

ES: I had to learn how to deal with an iPhone. I bought an iMac and an iPhone, I already had an iPad, now I’m all Apple integrated (laughs). And I’m actually happy to do a lot of things myself so I have a better idea of what’s going on. But seriously, you have to learn that sometimes an infrastructure and a big organization is a crutch, and this is an opportunity to be without it. I’m enjoying that. And I have the luxury of the pace to enjoy that. And I’m at home a bit, I kind of have to get used to that.

X: What type of science now interests you the most?

ES: This whole field of immuno-oncology, and allowing your own body’s immune system to fight, and in some cases eradicate, the invading tumor, is the beginning of a major, major wave of change in what we consider possible cures for cancer, new thresholds for new treatments, and new avenues for therapeutics. Dementia—perhaps Alzheimer’s in particular—it’s such a societal burden. And even though there have been failures in what we will look back [on as] the early attempts, I think the new science is still so exciting. And it might be at the interface of academic groups with small companies where there might be some breakthroughs—I’m following that area. Another area I think is going to be ripe for a lot of activity is in congestive heart failure, which is probably the new cancer. People don’t realize that 50 percent of patients with congestive heart failure die within five years. We’re making progress on the right side of that in cancer, but we’ve not budged that number in heart failure. And there are more and more molecular insights into how we might approach that.

X: What about technologies?

ES: Gene therapy is back, and it will have certain select applications. Stem cell technology is going to be ripe in the coming years. I think there’ll be advances in how to deliver antibodies. They may have multiple targets rather than a single target, and it may be possible to deliver antibodies and other biologics orally, instead of injecting them. These are some of the areas that I’ve scouted out that I might become more closely associated with. Can’t do them all though.

X: What science might pay off further down the road?

ES: I wouldn’t want to say it’s hype, but this new technology of gene editing which goes under the acronym of CRISPR is very, very interesting. We’re also achieving some cures [for cancer] by modifying the T cell for an individual, and then putting that in a patient with illnesses. Both of these areas are extremely exciting, but they’re at the early stage. So I think we have to have reasonable expectations, and a long-term view.

X: What are some of the regrets you have over your time at Bristol?

ES: The one failure that I really felt I had at Bristol was in the area of neuroscience, which has been very, very hard for many companies. Many companies have withdrawn. I would’ve liked to make more strides in the area of retarding the progression of dementia. I think that’s a big issue. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. We had a lot of in-licensing opportunities and a very active in-house program. We had some failed Phase II studies and we decided not to [take them] into Phase III. Bristol has a wonderful program in hepatitis C. It wasn’t even named when I was in medical school, now they are curing that disease. We had a number one position at one point, but we fell back to a number two position because an acquisition we made [Inhibitex] did not go well. But we also had some advances in immuno-oncology that went better than ever expected, and Bristol has become the lead company in [that] area. So everything has balanced net positive.

X: And looking back, some of the most significant challenges you faced as an R&D chief?

ES: I think when people get done with this career, the hardest thing they say to themselves is, did I put this right person in that role? Picking the right person for the right role, or [not] funding something that had higher risk at the time than I felt I could take, yet eventually it worked out. The last thing I did was to make sure we had a good successorship. R&D leaders often stay too long, and don’t often plan enough for succession. I hope people look back and say that I got those two right.