Vir Biotechnology: Fierce15 Winner
This quiet biotech is looking for curative therapies and new vaccines for a host of infectious diseases with an experienced biopharma executive team.
CEO: George Scangos Based: San Francisco Founded: 2017 Clinical focus: Infectious diseases
The scoop: When George Scangos stepped down as CEO of Biogen in late 2016, biotech fans wondered what he would do next. They didn’t have to wait long to get their answer: In January 2017, he reemerged as CEO of Vir Biotechnology, a startup focused on developing vaccines and drugs to cure infectious diseases whose treatments are scarce.
The company is taking a multipronged approach to R&D that includes funding academic researchers, in-licensing novel molecules from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and doing its own research. Leading that R&D effort is Vicki Sato, a veteran of another biotech success story, cystic fibrosis drug developer Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
What makes Vir Fierce: Vir hasn’t provided any details about its pipeline quite yet, but its launch was remarkable for the sheer size of the funding: $150 million from ARCH Venture Partners. A second contribution of undisclosed size came from none other than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—an organization that has led a worldwide effort to bring cures for infectious diseases to developing countries.
The company was the brainchild of ARCH cofounder Robert Nelson, a longtime venture capitalist who has seeded some of the biggest names in the industry, including Illumina, deCODE Genetics and Alnylam.
Vir’s approach is to use immune programming to manipulate the processes by which pathogens interact with the hosts they infect. The company’s in-house technology portfolio includes viral vectors it obtained by acquiring TomegaVax, a spinout of Oregon Health & Science University. Researchers Louis Picker and Klaus Frueh developed the technologies, fueled largely by grants from the Gates Foundation.
Picker specializes in studying T cells—the immune cells that have recently been successfully reprogrammed to fight blood cancers. (Novartis’ recently approved Kymriah is the first product on the market that’s made by engineering the T cells of individual patients so they recognize and attack cancer cells.) Picker has spent his career developing new technologies to boost the immune system’s ability to fight infectious diseases.
Picker has charted some early success with an experimental HIV vaccine. His team developed the vaccine from cytomegalovirus (CMV), a harmless bug that many people unknowingly carry. When they tested it in monkeys with an HIV-like disease, they found that the vaccine cleared the virus in about half of the animals.
Upon Vir’s launch, Scangos told Forbes he was attracted to the opportunity by the “huge medical need” it is pursuing. “We're talking about hundreds of millions of people who are infected with some of these diseases,” he said.