Xconomy doesn’t have annual awards (the X-ies, anyone?), but I don’t have any hesitation naming Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO) the biotech company of the year for 2014. This is neither a prediction of future success nor an endorsement. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that hands-down, Juno was the most atypical biotech I’ve seen in years, perhaps ever.
How unusual is Juno? Let’s count the ways.
In a watershed year of biotech debuts, the Seattle-based cancer immunotherapy developer on Dec. 18 had the most notable IPO of all, notching a $2 billion valuation right out of the gate. By the end of the year, that figure was up to $4.7 billion.
Juno is built upon an atypical foundation, too. It has licensed cell-therapy technologies from three research institutions, and it is pushing ahead with clinical programs based on all three. Most important for people with hard-to-treat hematological cancers, the programs Juno has licensed are showing remarkable results in early clinical trials, as are cancer immunotherapy programs at other companies such as Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE), and Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN).
To fuel their ambitious plan, Juno’s founders convinced a most unlikely investor—the State of Alaska—to anchor the company’s private fundraising of more than $300 million in less than a year.
Given all this, it was fitting that my last interview of 2014 was with Juno cofounder Larry Corey—who immediately threw a wrench into the sui generis narrative. He thinks the Juno model could work again. “I don’t think Juno is an outlier from an idea point of view,” Corey said by phone on New Year’s Eve while on vacation on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
As president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Corey was instrumental in making Juno a reality; much of the work Juno is doing was licensed exclusively from The Hutch, as it’s known. (Juno’s other institutional partners are Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Seattle Children’s Research Institute.)
Corey received at least half a million Juno shares well before the IPO; if he still owns them, they’re worth tens of millions of dollars. But he’s not on permanent vacation. He has left his post as Hutch president to go back to academic life and his lab at the research institution, where his specialty is infectious disease. One of the world’s top virologists, he also runs the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. The next couple years could be a highlight of what’s already an illustrious career.
While antiretroviral therapies and public health policies have gained traction against HIV infection, vaccine efforts have only provided three decades of frustration. But promising results from a vaccine trial in late 2014 have built momentum for more extensive trials in 2015 and 2016, with HVTN playing a key role.
While that work will be funded by government and nonprofit sources, Corey’s experience with Juno brings up the question whether a for-profit Juno-like model—research gathered from multiple institutions backed by a non-traditional venture syndicate—can work for infectious disease. “You’d have to solve big problems, big issues, big enough that you can attract everyone’s interest,” says Corey, who acknowledges it would be a challenge to parse out responsibilities among all the parties.
There are plenty of medical problems to solve—Corey cited HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, and others—but could investors be persuaded to pony up Juno-like funds at Juno-like speeds? “You never know until you try,” Corey says.
I pressed Corey if he personally was willing to try. His response: “We’ll see where life leads.”
I asked Corey if Juno’s emergence in 2014 heralded a new chapter for the Seattle biotech community, where many promising homegrown companies have been acquired and broken up, or in the case of Dendreon (NASDAQ:DNDN), have spiraled into bankruptcy without much hope for a rescue.
“The Seattle biotech industry is having a hard time,” said Corey. “It had been a decent place to start a company. The Hutch spun out several, perhaps the best was Immunex, but in the end these companies would be bought out and eventually dissolved.”
Corey has several ideas for building a more permanent biotech base. One is a more muscular incubator fund within academic walls so that ideas and technologies could advance before moving into the outside world, looking for venture funding. “It would be like running a startup within the academic institution,” he said.
Corey’s original idea of doing this at The Hutch—“to leverage the expertise of the inventor and the institution”—led to Juno, he said. Could more … Next Page »
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