Same Mission, Altered Course

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 5

How an early personal realization in healthcare focus paved path for greater impact.

Naveen Bazaj recalls having a strong interest in healthcare and medicine going all the way back to elementary school. Overcoming health issues of his own at a young age while growing up in the small city of Fremont in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bazaj attributes his experiences as the key reasons he pursued a career in the healthcare industry. This led Bazaj to enroll at UCLA to study biology, with a focus on neuroscience, where he trained as a scientist and spent two years conducting stem cell research at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, exploring new ways to potentially counteract age-related eye disorders such as macular degeneration. He graduated from the university with a BS in biology. But Bazaj’s love of the field and drive to impact public health through novel science, notwithstanding, he would soon have a come-to-Jesus moment that would forever alter his professional course.

When thinking about his time in the lab doing bench research, “that wasn’t where I was going to be able to make the kind of impact that I wanted to make and touch the number of lives that I hoped to one day,” says Bazaj. “So I started considering the other side of it—how is industry run, how do you build companies, how do you grow companies?—and seeing that there needs to be innovation and input and energy on the business side of things.”

A newfound route established, Bazaj first began his career in investment banking, focused on the technology and healthcare sectors. After three years gaining valuable understanding of capital markets, M&A, and corporate finance, he embarked on what is now a 10-plus-year whirlwind journey immersed in business/corporate development and strategy for small and growing biotechnology companies hopeful of advancing life-changing products. The journey would zigzag Bazaj from one coast to the other (and back)—each move carefully building on the other to further fuel his purpose, evolve his thought process, and push him on his intended path, where, today, he is head of corporate development for Alector, a biotech attempting to revolutionize the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Industry leap

Bazaj got his first taste of the in-house biotech world in 2011, when he joined Alvine Pharmaceuticals, a Bay Area, venture-backed startup developing a therapeutic for celiac disease. Bazaj helped position the company for a $70 million-plus partnership agreement with AbbVie struck two years later. He left the company that same year (Alvine would eventually be acquired by ImmunogenX, a subsidiary of Immunogenics LLC, in 2016), deciding to move to New York City to pursue an MBA at Columbia Business School, which he would collect in 2014. It was during his studies at Columbia, however, where Bazaj met a pair of “non-traditional” biotech entrepreneurs, who had recently found Phosplatin Therapeutics, a locally based company developing a novel small-molecule drug for cancer. Bazaj was hired as its second employee in 2013, serving as director of corporate and strategic development. He helped Phosplatin raise over $10 million in seed funding and executed the company’s first regional licensing deal.

Though enjoying the job and the NYC and East Coast lifestyle, Bazaj couldn’t ignore a significant need and gap, he believed, in applying technology effectively in drug development and healthcare. This prompted his next big change in 2016, trekking back to the Bay Area to join Google’s healthcare unit, Verily Life Sciences, and climb on the digital wave in biopharma that was forming, tapping Verily’s talent in things like decentralized clinical trials, digital biomarkers, and artificial intelligence (AI). Bazaj initially worked on strategic partnerships and other business development opportunities and then expanded his role to lead a small business within Verily, called Liftware, that made and sold an assistive device (a motion-sensing spoon and fork) for patients with tremor due to Parkinson’s disease.

“If you can marry pharma and tech, it can be a win-win for each side,” Bazaj tells Pharm Exec. “Utilize areas that you’re good at and then lean on the other partner for the areas that they are best-in-class at. At the time pharma didn’t have as creative of engineers, access to the best AI, or user design and experience, and other similar types of capabilities. Google had all of that and they were really good at it. But at the same time, we recognized where pharma had the deeper and much better understanding of disease, and disease biology.”

Bazaj stayed at Verily for a little over two years, but then, another itch materialized for the ascending—but never satisfied—executive. His numerous engagements and interactions with patients with Parkinson’s disease, their families, advocacy groups, and neurologists—seeing the severe unmet need in neurodegeneration firsthand—had triggered a realization. While innovations such as Liftware were profound, a harsh reality remained for patients: their disease was and would continue to progress. “That’s when I was like, okay, I want to go back into therapeutics,” says Bazaj. He credits his wife, whom he met in NYC and also works in biopharma in portfolio and alliance management, for her steadying support and being his sounding board during decisions like these.

Pushing boundaries

That would lead Bazaj to Alector, also based in the Bay Area, which he joined in 2018. Then about 50 employees and still privately held, today, Alector, now public, has expanded its headcount fivefold, with four clinical-stage programs in its pipeline and another three nearing clinical development this year. Attempting to pioneer new approaches to immuno-neurology, or neuroimmunology, and building on the success seen in oncology by harnessing the body’s own immune system to counteract disease, the company is targeting frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Alzheimer’s disease in the clinic and potential applications for other neurodegenerative disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Last year, Bazaj played a leading role in the formation of a global partnership with GlaxoSmithKline around Alector’s progranulin franchise candidates. Worth up to $2.2 billion, the deal is intended to accelerate and expand the development of these monoclonal antibodies into multiple orphan and non-orphan neurodegenerative indications. Progranulin is a key secreted protein that helps direct immune activity in the brain. Alector is also collaborating with AbbVie on two Alector investigational drugs for Alzheimer’s, including one currently in a Phase II clinical trial designed to improve TREM2 (triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells 2) signaling in patients with early onset Alzheimer’s.

“In the last 10 years, the face of oncology treatment really changed because we discovered how to use the body’s own immune system to aid in the fight against cancer. The hope is that we can do something similar for neuro,” says Bazaj, pointing to driving forces such as increasing genome-wide association studies, better imaging tools, and larger datasets being collected. “Alector’s original mission statement was a bold call to action, which was: we’re on a mission to cure neurodegeneration. Arnon [Rosenthal, PhD], our CEO and co-founder, talks about his overarching life goal, which is to eliminate neurodegeneration—make it a disease of the past, such as what happened with polio and smallpox.”

Providing more impetus is Alector’s involvement in immuno-oncology as well. Bazaj directed the company’s regional licensing deal with Innovent for Alector’s first innate-immuno-oncology product, a SIRP-alpha inhibitor for hematological malignancies and solid tumors, which the partner, Innovent, is preparing to put into the clinic this year.

No matter the immuno setting, Bazaj believes a distinctive corporate culture built around “actionable and real, not just pie-in-the sky,” principles and values will benefit efforts—ones he’s hoping to do his part to instill and advance in his team and cross-functionally at Alector. To highlight a few of Alector’s values, they include embracing feedback and “owning” what to do with it; elevating each other across functional teams (“treat all wins as shared wins”); and questioning convention, hence, the notion of immuno-neurology, for example. “When we created these values, our thinking for our team members was that, whether on day one, or day 700, you can look at them and think about how they fit into your scope and your role at the company,” says Bazaj.

Michael Christel is Pharm Exec’s Group Managing Editor. He can be reached at mchristel@mjhlifesciences.com.