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Moonshot for Life

Pharma needs entrepreneurship at the heart

Pharma needs entrepreneurship at the heart

“The entrepreneurial and nimble way of working of biotech, combined with working with the best academics, the culture of rigorous decision making in venture capital and optimal access to big pharma’s chemistry and development platforms may provide a highly successful new model for drug discovery. As more entrepreneurs enter the industry, we’re creating an ecosystem of biotech companies that can innovate, take multiple risks and with leaders who will know if these programs can be progressed to deliver life changing treatments for the millions of patients who need them.”

Those were the words of Dr Paul Peter Tak in a recent article where he spoke about the power of entrepreneurship in creating value for patients and society. He stepped down from his role at GlaxoSmithKline as SVP of R&D, Chief of Immunology and Development Lead, to join Flagship Pioneering as a Venture Partner to help oversee scientific ventures to find cures for chronic conditions such as cancer and autoimmune diseases.

We sat down with Dr Tak to hear more about his views on entrepreneurship in the health industry, and how this new move allows him to have a bigger impact in the world of biotech.

An Entrepreneur All Along

Dr Tak spent a significant part of his professional life in academia, but has always been entrepreneurial. “I started an occupational health company in the Netherlands called Medi Partners, which has significant clients like Akzo Nobel. Later, when I was the Head of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology at the Academic Medical Centre of the University of Amsterdam, I started a biotech company, Arthrogen – a company that still exists.”

Not content with just starting new businesses though, in September 2011, Dr Tak moved to GlaxoSmithKline to build and to lead the Immuno-inflammation Therapy Area Unit into one of the core therapy area units for GSK. “In only a few years, we brought more than 10 new mechanisms of action into the clinic,” he notes.

Whilst entrepreneurship is traditionally considered with respect to creating new enterprises, the traits and behaviours of those with an entrepreneurial spark can also be well utilised in large corporations. Dr Tak not only started and built units across oncology, immuno-inflammation, and infectious diseases, he found that getting programmes into the clinic fast meant rethinking how the departments worked together in sharing resources and expertise.

“In my role of Chief Immunology Officer, I tried to create synergy and collaboration between different parts of the organisation. People in vaccines focus completely on the induction of the immune responses against certain molecules, against antigens. They are also focusing on immunology with deep knowledge, so it made sense to see a synergy at the interface of pharma, R&D, and vaccines. And in doing this, that started to build more synergy around the whole company.”

Bringing the Outside In

Dr Tak found that not only could he create synergies within GSK but also between the company and the outside world of science. “It’s critical to have access to the external world, where there are academics work in different ways – they can do blue-sky-thinking, you don’t know where the thought will come from. You need to optimise that interface between the external immunology and internal world, and I did that by creating the Immunology Network.”

The Immunology Network has a few pillars. There’s the external immunology board with high-class professors of immunology with overlapping, but distinct, knowledge. There might be a professor focused on immuno oncology, another in the emerging field of immuno metabolic, another on neuro immunology, another on autoimmunity, and so on. They work together in a highly collaborative think-tank-esque manner, to provide collective intelligence. There’s also the Immunology Catalyst, based in Stevenage in the UK on the GSK side, where senior academic immunologists, selected based on a very stringent criteria in terms of delivery and standing in the field, are brought in to GSK to work on programs of their choice. GSK provides a map, personnel, budget and freedom – if they discover something not related to GSK molecules, they even own the IP. “My hypothesis was that if these people worked in the environment everybody thinks day and night about how to make a medicine, that they would also start thinking about translation of their own research, and how that could influence the lives of patients. I also predicted that having these people around to talk to everyone would make for a more challenging peer-review based culture, and that people would have more scientific discussions. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Dr Tak believes that there is a problem in the model of drug discovery in big pharmaceutical companies, one which can be enhanced with more entrepreneurial approaches. “One of the reasons is that the mindset you need in late-stage development is highly regulated, very process-oriented, very much about efficiency, with tight timelines. It’s a very different mindset than what you need in discovery – which is more about freedom of thought within certain boundaries to find the breakthrough of the future. These mindsets are very different, and very few people have flexible minds and the experience to flex between late stage development versus early discovery. I think this is one of the reasons why the return of investment in discovery consistently goes down in pharmaceutical industry. It is getting pretty close to zero,” he explains. 

As a result of the insights gained from starting the Immunology Network, Dr Tak figured GSK needed to organise how they worked with strategically-aligned biotechs in a different way. “We brought in the best academic minds that have the rigor of decision-making, and adopted the speed and agility of a venture capital as opposed to that of big pharma.” Taking this combined approach to innovation whilst also having big pharma on the table, to offer insight and experience with regards to high-quality chemistry, process in late-stage development, or what the medicine needs to look like to ultimately have a place in the market, means that you essentially get the best of all worlds.

Dr Tak started a company as a result of the GSK model in the beginning of 2018, called Sitryx Therapeutics, which focuses on the new field of immuno metabolism, the interface between immunology and metabolism. “We created this company to take this science forward, not controlled by GSK. It’s the best scientists in the academic field with the rigor of decision making, led by venture capitalists SV Health. I was there as a co-founder and also as GSK member of the board.”

What is the Future of Pharma?

With the pharmaceutical industry well aware of the declining return on investment in R&D, the question of what the future of drug discovery looks like is a hot topic. “In general, I’m not optimistic of the future of discovery in big pharma. Of course there are exceptions, there are companies that have been successful. I think GSK has been successful during the last few years in building a pipeline in immunology and oncology, very much based on the model I’ve described,” Dr Tak says. “I think there’s very big opportunities for collaboration between biotech and pharma. Pharma needs to make sure the data biotech generates is the data they need to make a decision on whether they want to bring into the pipeline or not, and they need to make sure they make the right decisions. But if you’re not great at discovery, how can you see what the new science is, how will you be able to make decisions, choosing the right assets into your pipeline? It’s a great challenge, and the solution, again, will be to be strongly connected with the biotech and academic worlds; to be completely open to peer review; to make sure the people who make careers based on process get the right information upfront to work out not only how things look in the current market, but understand what the future could look like too.”

Dr Tak believes the industry also needs to go beyond market research and find people who are able to see beyond business as usual. “Who would have predicted that the iPad would be a big success when people were already carrying an iPhone and a laptop? I don’t think market research would have picked up on that. Of course, a classical example would be from the time of the first cars – if they had done market research, they would have got the answer that they need faster horses as opposed to a car with an engine in it. You need to have people who are visionary, well-connected in the biotech world, have the right scientific judgment, and who are able to be challenged by external academics.” 

Venturing Out

Now at Flagship Pioneering, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr Tak continues with the entrepreneurial approach to advancing the health industry. “Flagship are originators of early-stage biotech companies focused on unprecedented science. It is focused on unbounded exploration, product platform companies focused on new research. Flagship, if things progress well, may give them Series A funding, though will still be completely owned by Flagship. That doesn’t only support the company with money, but also with strategic and deep knowledge of the science. And then when all things go well, an external CEO is brought in, and then Series B comes into play. Flagship will still co-invest and will still control the company, and then over time it will get on its own feet.”

Dr Tak’s approach to health innovation is about making it happen at scale, as efficiently as possible – but his mission ties back to one thing. “I am primarily and foremost a physician. I’m a physician scientist, so I try to better the lives of patients.  That is what’s driving me. I’ve greatly enjoyed being a practicing physician for many years, and I’ve trained many of the rheumatologists and internists in the Netherlands. But I started to see I could have a bigger impact if I could be able to develop new treatment paradigms, and develop new medicines. That’s why I am in the pharmaceutical industry – to learn how to do that. That is my dream for the near future.

It seems Dr Tak’s dream isn’t far off either: “I’m not only a Flagship Venture Partner, but I’m also leading now as the CEO of one of their companies that is still in stealth mode. We are moving very fast forward towards the clinic, and the programs will be very relevant for multiple therapy areas.”