Agilis builds value by tapping into Boston’s biotech ecosystem

June 2, 2015 ctheodoropulos

In November 2014, Gregory Robinson was named the Chief Scientific Officer for Agilis Biotherapeutics, a biotechnology company engineering best-in-class DNA therapeutics for patients afflicted with devastating rare diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). Formerly the Senior Director for Rare Diseases Business Development and the Head of Discovery Research at Shire, Robinson has stepped up to the challenge of advancing Agilis’ drug and therapy discovery programs.

From his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he spoke to partneringNEWS about why it becomes mission critical to be located in the Boston biotech hub. Robinson is a member of the Planning Committee for BioPharm America™, to be held September 15–17, 2015 in Boston.

Gregory Robinson, Chief Scientific Officer for Agilis Biotherapeutics

Gregory Robinson, Chief Scientific Officer for Agilis Biotherapeutics

partneringNEWS (pN): Agilis started two years ago in Dallas, and now you are in Boston. What’s behind that shift?

Gregory Robinson (GR): Two major hubs for biotech are San Francisco and Boston. While both cities have academic centers, I think Boston has the edge because it not only has small and large biotech but also has large pharma relocating their research to the Boston area. The Boston biotech community is also geographically concentrated, so it’s easy to reach people. Also, being closer to Europe, it allows for easy interaction with the European scientific community. There is the horsepower, the expertise here. We can collaborate with universities, hospitals and leading academic investigators, or interact with the network of pharma people in the area. There is a strong venture capital community willing to fund emerging organizations. This kind of action plays well in Boston because there is an infrastructure in place: the universities, the hospital systems, the startup companies, the large biotech—it goes on and on.

pN: How do these soft factors translate into value for companies?

GR: You can de-risk programs by having experienced individuals around you who can move things forward to an inflection point. You are located where new things are happening, and you are able to take advantage of it due to accessibility. These interactions are more difficult if you are not in a major hub. Can that be done? Absolutely, but many successful programs that start outside a hub like Boston ultimately move closer to hubs where they will have more support, resources, and a talent base from which to build.

An example of this was my first biotech which was located in Worchester, Massachusetts, in a biotech cluster about an hour away. Though not too far from Boston, after a couple years, the company grew in size and decided to move back into Boston.

pN: How do you make the scientific infrastructure work for your company?

GR: What I’m doing right now is working at a startup company that is employing an out-sourcing oriented model. It’s a model that is becoming more prevalent as people realize that they don’t need to invest their working capital to replicate all the infrastructure and equipment that exist elsewhere to move programs in development. There are plenty of contract or academic labs with the expertise to move the science forward. With the large number of universities in the area, there is an abundance of highly qualified skilled talent. In addition, there are many seminars and conferences happening around you, which provides interactions with the people from large and small companies as well as the investment community. We know them and can be in contact with them on a regular basis when something happens—not just on a periodic basis. Certainly with the internet, you can talk with people from anywhere. But it is much better to have these interactions face-to-face.

pN: Instead of renting an office, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just order a coffee and sit all day in Kendall Square?

GR: It’s not efficient.  If you’re going to meet people, you need to have a place where you can have a private discussion. You don’t need a big mahogany desk and all the trappings of a corporate office. But you do need a space to meet, gather, interact and build strong relationships. And people coming to see you want to see it’s not just some guy with a briefcase walking around Kendall Square. A company can build judiciously, first with a smaller office, and then as more people are required, they can expand. You just get so much more done, and you need to put your resources to work wisely. Meeting once a week or talking on the phone for an hour is nothing like having a person in the same office.

pN: Does pedigree count for something for a company?

GR: If you have a Nobel Laureate with your company, then sure that is going to pull more weight. And if you have Harvard or MIT pedigrees that might tell people you’re smart. But it doesn’t tell people whether you can move things forward, that you can prioritize, that you can deliver. I think in Boston, the pedigree that counts is whether you have done this before, whether you were able to take something to a meaningful de-risking point and move it further along (i.e., clinical, commercial, acquisition). It is always going to be track-record over pedigree.

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