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Going all-in on accelerating the promise of cell therapy at larger scale.
It’s a testament to Carsten Linnemann’s drive to advance quickly that his first role in the industry was as co-founder of a biotech company. He was still completing his PhD, focused on engineering T-cell immunity by TCR gene transfer at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) in Amsterdam, when he helped to set up T-Cell Factory in 2013. He says he jumped at the chance to start a biotech because it felt like an extraordinary opportunity, but without necessarily being aware of what it would entail.
Fortunately, he had a steady hand mentoring him in the shape of his PhD supervisor, Dr. Ton Schumacher (one of T-Cell Factory’s four other co-founders and a key opinion leader in the area of T-cell immunity). Schumacher told Linnemann early on in his research that he would be suited to a career in the industry. “I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time,” says Linnemann. “When you’re in the middle of a PhD and you’re committed to the science, it can almost seem like an insult to hear that maybe you should consider the industry instead!” But Linnemann soon acknowledged that Schumacher was “absolutely right.” The two continue to work together; in 2018, they co-founded Neogene Therapeutics, where Linnemann now serves as CEO and Schumacher as chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board and member of the board of directors. “And I’m still learning from Ton to this day,” he adds.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The T-Cell Factory co-founders had no funding at the start, so there was no full-time job for Linnemann. In parallel, he continued working in academic research and successfully completed his PhD and a postdoctoral fellowship at NKI. But this balance quickly shifted; when T-Cell Factory was just two years old (in 2015) it was acquired for $21 million by Kite Pharma, where Linnemann was awarded his first full-time position as senior scientist. By 2017, he was principal scientist at Kite; the following year he was appointed its associate director of next-generation T-cell therapies.
Linnemann was keen to move onward to set up his own company, however. Still under 40 when he co-founded Neogene Therapeutics in 2018, he was now ready to take on the role of CEO. Neogene—a preclinical-stage biotech focusing on a new class of fully personalized neo-antigen T-cell therapies to treat cancer—is tackling “a complex, multifaceted challenge,” says Linnemann. As such, he explains, “there is no one individual in the company—myself included—who has all the necessary knowledge and skills to solve this challenge by themselves.” What Linnemann has learned in his relatively short time as a leader is the importance of trusting people. “We bring in talented people to the areas where we need solutions and enable them to drive the decision process toward those solutions,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve seen leaders sometimes struggle with letting other people make decisions. But being able to trust team members to take that responsibility to come up with the best possible solution is really important.”
Linnemann also credits the egalitarian business culture of the Netherlands with helping to sustain the environment of trust that he values. Originally from Germany, he moved to Amsterdam when he began his PhD research in 2008. Since then, he has “very much come to enjoy the Dutch business culture, which is based on very flat hierarchies and direct and inclusive discussions,” he says. “People are willing to provide their opinion and are very engaged in all discussions. That facilitates innovation and good decision-making, and it fosters the culture that is deeply rooted within Neogene.”
Linnemann’s vision for Neogene now is to become a fully integrated cell therapy company providing treatments that “make a difference for patients.” In the short term, that means “moving our therapeutic approach into the clinic as fast as possible,” then focusing on building a company that can move beyond initial proof of concept and provide treatments on a larger scale.
While Linnemann’s desire to achieve results quickly dominates his everyday thinking, he remains adamant that the obstacles he may face as Neogene progresses are merely temporary. The advances fueled by the COVID pandemic have only served to strengthen his belief that innovation can be a much faster process. “The speed with which highly effective vaccines became available in less than 12 months has been an eye-opener for me personally,” he says. “I believe that this accelerated pace can and should become the new normal for the industry.”
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Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.