Ex-Celgene Dealmaker Tom Daniel Charts a New Course Advising Biotechs

Xconomy New York — 

For close to a decade, Tom Daniel and George Golumbeski comprised perhaps one of the best-known dealmaking duos in biopharma, striking a slew of alliances that established Summit, NJ-based Celgene as one of the more creative, nimble biotech partners in the business.

“We think alike,” Daniel says. “We can pretty much finish each other’s sentences.”

No longer. Xconomy has learned that Daniel stepped down from his role as president of research & early development at Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) over the summer, a position that has since been filled by Rupert Vessey. Daniel is now the founding executive director of what he calls a “shell” advisory group in San Diego named Catalysis Advisors, from which he’s advising some biotechs and venture firms and acting as a “founding consultant” to other startups.

“I’m still in the game,” Daniel says, “just trying to create a bit of a different role.”

Daniel says that exact role is something he’s figuring out as he goes, but he definitely won’t be a hands-on operational executive as he was in the past at Celgene, Ambrx, Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), and Immunex before that.

For now, he’s working with venture capitalist colleagues on some new companies that have yet to be officially launched. He’s joining the board of a nascent startup in Boston (he wouldn’t disclose the name) that is working in a space that is “highly complementary” to the advancing cell-based, CAR-T cancer immunotherapy treatments, he says. Another new startup he’s involved with is focused on the neurobehavioral field, he says. Daniel is also on the boards of Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) and Zafgen (NASDAQ: ZFGN), and still contributes to some of Celgene’s scientific work.

“For me, this is a rich time to think ahead, try to figure out how the forces will play out over the next decade and where to try to contribute,” he says.

Daniel joined Celgene in 2006. Golumbeski (then the head of business development and now Celgene’s executive vice president) followed three years later, and the two became the chief architects of what’s become a sprawling network of collaborations with early-stage biotechs. Under their watch, Celgene became known for its creative alliances, customizing deals with young biotechs to fit each specific situation, rather than following a standard template. These partnerships were a mix of option-to-buy deals, broad alliances on a variety of drugs, and more, but the common theme was a hands-off approach that left the smaller company enough freedom to share in its own upside. (For more, check out this chat with Golumbeski about Celgene’s dealmaking strategy back in 2013.)

“We never had the big company hubris about our collaborators,” Daniel says. “George and I worked very, very hard to create relationships with people first with whom we had affinity, and secondly in such way that both sides really saw the win-win.”

As a result of that flexibility, Celgene got in early on a variety of biotechs that since become publicly traded companies with promising futures. Among them: Agios Pharmaceuticals, Acceleron Pharma, Bluebird Bio, and Juno. Celgene’s pipeline is littered with experimental drugs that are a result of these tie-ups, and many of them are progressing their way through the clinic. Celgene, for instance, has said it intends to file for FDA approval of enasidenib, an experimental cancer drug discovered by Agios, by the end of the year.

Daniel looks to the 2009 Agios deal, a wide-ranging collaboration that included a $130 million upfront payment—a significant amount considering Agios was years away from its first clinical trials—as the bellwether deal from his tenure. Celgene spent plenty of time negotiating with the Agios team and figuring out how to construct a deal that would represent a big bet on early science while best respecting Agios’s boundaries and motivations, he says. Celgene later did some things Daniel called unusual, such as helping set up opportunities for Agios to get more funding, he says.

“Every company kept coming in telling us they wanted an Agios-like deal,” Daniel says.

Daniel left Celgene in July because he felt that he’d accomplished many of the goals he’d set out. He spent a long time trying to recruit Robert Hershberg, the co-founder of VentiRx Pharmaceuticals (another Celgene partner) who is now Celgene’s chief scientific officer, and Vessey to replace him. He enjoys working with small, focused companies rather than managing large portfolios as he did at Celgene.

“A decade is a long time in a role,” he says. “I think the organization needed some fresh blood.”