In conversation with: Laurence Reid, Warp Drive Bio CEO
Co-founded by Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and genomics expert George Church, Ph.D., Warp Drive Bio was launched by Sanofi and Third Rock Ventures back in 2012 with $125 million and a mission to “build an innovative genomics search engine to reveal nature’s drugs.”
Exactly six years after its official launch (it spent around two years being incubated), Warp Drive has been working to live up to its name, speeding through development and deals, with a focus on its SMART platform, which creates small-molecule drugs that bind to an intracellular receptor—or presenter protein—to create a complex that is effectively a biologic drug operating within the cell.
And in the last year it has set up several Big Pharma pacts, namely with GlaxoSmithKline and Roche, as well as a retooled pact with long-term partner Sanofi.
For the former, the two companies penned a high-tech alliance last year that will try to unlock the 80% or so of human proteins considered undruggable to conventional drug discovery techniques, and open up new opportunities to develop medicines for intractable diseases such as cancer.
GSK is bringing to the program its DNA-encoded library tech, which is based on the synthesis and screening of a diverse collection of around a trillion small molecules—tagged with specific DNA sequences that serve as unique molecular barcodes—which can be screened against drug targets.
Warp Drive Bio meanwhile will contribute its SMART platform, something the pair hopes together will help crack “undruggable” targets.
And with Roche it is in line to get $387 million for a license to advance certain classes from the more than 100 groups of possibly new antibiotics the biotech is analyzing. Such classes of natural antibiotics used to flow out of pharma research labs at a reasonable rate. But the faucet ran dry more than 30 years ago, contributing to companies cutting investment in the sector shortly before the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria began dialing up the need for novel antibiotics.
Warp Drive’s answer is to go back to the soil armed with modern technologies. The approach to drug discovery pairs a bacterial genome database with bioinformatics tools to identify genes that code for the synthesis of novel natural products. Warp Drive extracts these genes and analyzes natural products they express, before tweaking the resulting potential antibiotics with chemical technologies to create drug candidates.
There are some strong deals here, but the biotech has been through some changes, both with its partner Sanofi and in leadership. Sanofi in fact had the option to buy the biotech but dropped this in favor of a $750 million R&D collab across a number of programs a few years back. The top three programs in the new Sanofi deal are focused on the RAS oncogenic protein, while the fourth focuses on Warp’s platform tech on Gram-negative antibiotics.
This decision came at a time when the French Big Pharma was increasingly looking to outsource much of its R&D amid accusations that it couldn’t get a deal done. This, however, has been turned on its head this month, after it penned two multibillion-dollar deals, the first seeing it snap up Biogen’s blood disorder biotech Bioverativ for nearly $12 billion (although some analysts see this as an overpayment), and the second being for blood cancer biotech Ablynx, snatching it from the jaws of Novo Nordisk at the eleventh hour.
But Warp has not figured in these M&A plans; it now leads an independent path, with a focus on cancer and infectious disease, and aims to be in preclinical development by the end of 2019 and into the clinic in 2020 in both these areas.
Warp Drive was founded in part by Third Rock, and was initially run by its interim CEO, Alexis Borisy, before being taken over by world-leading scientist Gregory Verdine, Ph.D. A couple of years back, however, biopharma vet Laurence Reid, Ph.D., was tapped to run the biotech as Verdine pivoted from CEO to chief scientific officer, which is where his talents lie.
Reid comes with an impressive CV: a decade at Millennium Pharmaceuticals (his first transition to the business of biotech, serving in various business development roles, and ultimately as general manager of Millennium in Europe); five years at Ensemble Therapeutics (as chief business officer), and most recently five years at Alnylam (as chief business officer).
He admits that he “was pretty naïve” when he joined Millennium, “but I like to think that the constant theme through those adventures has been the desire to participate in the building of great drug discovery companies based on fundamental innovation. I have tried to bring that desire to Warp Drive since 2015.”
He explains: “When I decided to leave Alnylam at the end of 2014, I was interested in seeking a role in an earlier-stage company that would provide the opportunity for me to bring my collected experiences to bear in a leadership position. I have known the principals at Third Rock Ventures for many years and discussions along those lines took us quickly to the CEO role at Warp Drive. I was most excited to have the opportunity to work with TRV and Verdine, assuming that role in March 2015.
“At Warp Drive, we are aiming to shape our innovation into the discovery of new drug candidates based on the chemistry of nature—what we refer to as ‘molecules and mechanisms of nature.’ The field of natural chemistry in drug discovery has been significantly abandoned in recent decades, despite its massive historical contribution to the industry over more than 70 years. Warp Drive brings new technology and thinking to the revitalization of natural chemistry for the development of new medicines.”
He acknowledges some of the key changes to the biotech in recent years, but says they “celebrate the constant presence of change in a company like Warp Drive.”
Alnylam is now, of course, on the cusp of bringing the world’s first RNA drug to market in the form of patisiran, which could see U.S. approval this year for hereditary ATTR amyloidosis. After walking away a few years ago, I asked whether Reid was happy for the company as it looks close to completing its goal. He said “Very much so! I am sure that everyone in biotech is rooting for their success, actually. I think we all recognize that success of those who trailblaze with new technologies and build great products and companies is essential to the overall health and future prospects of the sector, including for young companies like Warp Drive.”
He’s also rooting for them as he “remains a committed shareholder of Alnylam” and adds that he “often use them in my daily routine as an example of the deep commitment to their mission and to strong culture that is required to develop innovative medicines. We were privileged to host Akshay Vaishnaw [Alnylam’s research head] at our recent company offsite meeting, and he stole the show with his discussion of the interface of culture, team commitment, and high science in building a great company like Alnylam.”
Reid points to its antibiotic work. This isn’t a “sexy” area for investors, though world governments are increasingly concerned that resistance to common antibiotics, and the lack of development in the pipeline, could see a major rise in deaths from common infections in the near future.
Reid says the company is “passionate about our commitment to the discovery of novel antibiotics. Of course, it has been a challenging area in which to create value in recent years, but we believe that that has to change in the future.
“There is a clear and growing dislocation between the global medical need and the complete lack of innovation in the field. We realized that we had to be particularly bold, even within the field, which is why we are now committed to the discovery of novel antibiotics.
“We have developed a platform [‘Genomes to Molecules’] that is highly differentiated in its ability to discovery novel antibiotics and built a multidisciplinary team to execute on that. Recent reports by WHO and others have stressed the importance of molecular novelty as part of the global solution to fight drug-resistant bacteria. We are proud to participate in that fight; I am certain that we can make profound contributions to the discovery of new antibiotics and confident that those contributions will get recognized as fundamentally value-creating in years to come.”
Since coming on board, Reid has led the company to several aforementioned Big Pharma deals. “The GSK alliance is interesting, in that it represents an unusual example of biotech and big pharma collaborating to integrate two complementary technologies to search for new drugs,” Reid explains.
“GSK is a leader in DNA-encoded libraries, and we have collaborated in the design of a new DNA-encoded library, incorporating the chemical hallmarks of the natural chemical scaffolds that enable the Warp SMART platform. Each party has the right to deploy that library against several of its own targets. The collaboration is a key strategic element for Warp and will drive the broadening of our pipeline in 2018 and beyond.”
He says of the Roche deal that it “is one of the few large pharma companies with a genuine commitment today to innovation in the antibiotic field; they have revitalized their team and strategy in the field in recent years.”
He added that they had been in talks with Roche “for a couple of years around the area, but it was really the shared interest in novel antibiotics that brought us together this year.”
But what about the Sanofi buyout, was not becoming a unit of the pharma the best thing for the company? “Yes, we believe that partnering rather than buyout was a highly preferred route by which to advance the company. We are passionately committed to remaining independent and have no interest in a buyout!”
But what about going public? “With respect to an IPO, that is not an immediate priority,” Reid says, “but we are reflecting on it as we move toward the clinic in the next couple years.”
And finally, we talk about being a biotech CEO: a job that comes with great financial rewards but can also come with greater pressures, more risk and more scrutiny than areas such as insurance, banking or the like. I ask Reid, why do people want to run a biotech rather than a financial sector role?
“I really cannot imagine working in any other industry,” he says. “It is a privilege to work in companies that are seeking to deploy cutting-edge science for the betterment of human health. Yes, there are stresses, but the opportunities and the successes are so rewarding that not to grab the risks would be to sell myself short on the core career undertaking.”