It’s early days at Morphic Therapeutic, in more ways than one. Launched quietly as a stealth company last summer, the Waltham, MA-based biotech completed a major USD 51.5 million A round just a couple of months ago. It has 15 staffers now and likely a two to three year run of preclinical work before it can expect to get into the clinic with the first of its new oral integrins.
Steering this small but growing group—look for a staff twice its size by the end of next year—is CEO Praveen Tipirneni. He spent 13 years running corporate development and strategy at Cubist after the MD got his MBA from Wharton. During that time, he played a key role in seeing Cubicin through to an approval and final label, learning a lot about antibiotics along the way. And then, early last year, after the Merck buyout came through, he spent some months thinking about what he wanted to do next, exploring some different opportunities.
“I was all over the place,” he recalls. A job at Vertex? Run a biotech company? Did he even want a CEO job at this stage of his life?
Then he came across a startup opportunity that had been percolating at Polaris Partners under the guiding hand of Kevin Bitterman, a VC who’s been founding a string of high-profile startups that includes the gene editing wunderkind Editas. Working with Tim Springer, a pioneer in integrin research at Harvard Med School, Bitterman was seeding a company that promised to overcome a research hurdle that had stalled the field years ago.
Inspired by some big wins on new antibodies like Tysabri—a powerful MS drug with a deadly side effect—that targeted integrins, investigators marched into a brick wall of lethal safety issues. Faced by some deadly and confounding failures, the R&D efforts had collapsed and Springer had gone back into the lab to figure out what went wrong. Over the following years, using better technology, he came to understand the structure of integrins and how they could morph into a health threat.
Now, working with the computational experts at Schrodinger, Morphic is creating new programs aimed at developing a portfolio of complex small molecules that it believes can overcome the challenge.
Tipirneni liked the science a lot. And the MBA fell in love with the strategic challenge of booting up a brand new company of his own design, starting with a completely clean slate on culture and a mission to avoid all—or at least most—of the organizational pitfalls that he had seen played out over the years.
“The thing that I got very excited about was starting a culture from scratch,” he says. “You can’t go to school for drug development,” he notes. But you can take what you’ve learned to create the best environment for the work.
One of the exciting things about creating a biotech culture, says the CEO, is that each company involves a variety of technical disciplines. To move forward, various teams work through different projects and challenges.
Getting these players to work together in a transparent way, where senior managers could get a line of sight on different projects while they were still underway, was top of mind.
In his career Tipirneni kept seeing the same thing happen over and over again. Junior teams would work on a project through to completion, and then take them to senior managers, who would shoot holes in it and turn it down.
The messaging app Slack (we use it at Endpoints) gave him some of that day-to-day transparency he was looking for. The online communications platform gives senior managers a better chance to watch a project as it develops so they can get involved early, before it derails.
Tipirneni also was concerned about the way that ideas are pitched in an organization. Bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation are more a curse than a blessing in a science-driven organization. So PowerPoints are out, three-page documents are in.
“You can’t produce a three-page document without thinking through it,” says Tipirneni. “Here, it’s very document-centric.”
One other thing that the CEO does differently is visible on the web page. What’s a web page for? It’s to gain information about a company rapidly, so he developed a web site adapted from news organizations practiced in pushing out lots of information to readers.
One of the first top projects at Morphic will be to develop an oral version of Takeda’s Entyvio, which has been racking up some big sales gains after, in Tipirneni’s words, following “a tortured path to market.”
His company will need some time to get into the clinic, but the CEO says this is the kind of drug that involves some very well understood biology.
Says the CEO: “In early Phase I, we will know if that drug works or not.”
Ultimately, he expects that there are about 15 significant opportunities to focus on. Getting to the clinic will require a very precise, careful step-by-step process, where teams will need to check each open box that presents itself.
If he’s right, the management lines drawn on Tipirneni’s new slate at Morphic can lead to more than one blockbuster.
Meet innovative biotech companies like Morphic at BioPharm America™ (#BioPharmAmerica) global life science partnering event in Boston this September. Find out more.
Look for more upcoming posts from John Carroll, Editor and Co-founder of Endpoints in his series “John Carroll’s 6 pre-IPO biotechs to watch,” exclusively on Insight.