Incremental Biotech Not Enough

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 5

Throwback scientist and entrepreneur leads quest to maximize gains in population health.

Simba Gill, PhD, president and CEO of Evelo Biosciences, is not at a loss for ideas. Or experience. Or incredible mentors, abstract thinking, energy, or words. Because he has so much knowledge, understanding, and intelligence, and his hopes for the health of mankind are so large, the time it takes “to science” could be Gill’s only limiting factor.

Gill feels that the current state of therapeutic development is like developing a luxury goods business.

“Almost none of the therapeutics in biotech are used in the majority of the people in the world, and I have a problem with that,” he says. “We develop therapies that have to be infused or injected, which is hard to do at home or within a community setting. Extremely high drug pricing means that we have left behind billions of people, as well as the idea to treat and intervene early on in disease.”

Gill’s vision is to bring affordable, effective, safe, and convenient treatments to the majority of the world’s population, and it lies squarely in the potential of Evelo Biosciences’ gut and small intestinal axis, SINTAX™, microbiome-based platform.

The overarching philosophy that brought Gill to this point in his career can be traced back to his roots. “I come from a classic Indian medical family,” he says. “My mom is an obstetrician and gynecologist and my dad a general surgeon. I was brought up with the now classic and academically supported ideas, meaning encourage curiosity, encourage zest for life, encourage the child to find his or her passion. I was also very much brought up on a view that we had a responsibility to help other people.”

This openness led to a conversation with his mother when Gill was 13, considering two paths for his life’s direction—the classic world of clinical medicine or the world of medical research—and which type of person could have the maximum positive impact: “Would it be somebody who discovered, for example, a major therapeutic for helping people with a very common disease? Or a doctor like my mother who worked to the age of 82 and had treated and helped huge numbers of patients, and the exponential effects on those lives?”

Gill eventually came to the view that the world of medical research in the emerging fields of immunology, molecular biology, and genetics was going to be the future of medicine. And one he wanted very much to be a part of.

At King’s College in London during the 1980s, there were 16 students in the only immunology undergraduate degree offered in the UK. During that time, the discipline boomed from one 100-page textbook to volumes of available documentation, explains Gill. Another first for Gill was his PhD program in partnership with Celltech, one of the world’s first three antibody companies. During his tenure, one of the first anti-cancer monoclonal antibody programs went into the clinic. Gill’s former Celltech supervisor, Mark Bodmer, PhD, is now Evelo’s chief scientific officer and led the first anti-tumor necrosis factor (TNF) antibody program to go into clinical trials.

Celltech inspired Gill to want to lead his own biotech company. He could see integrating the many different disciplines of a company, becoming a translator of science and interpreter for those roles. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant the Nobel Prize work is, you need to [be able to] build and grow a company to reach people,” says Gill.

Coupling his PhD with his MBA at age 25, Gill entered the workforce with the desire to work in biotech. However, Genentech and others in the San Francisco area turned down his applications. “And quite rightly, because I hadn’t really done anything in the business or operational world,” he says.

Fortunately for Gill, Boehringer Mannheim (which would later be acquired by Roche) said yes. Gill took over its business in North Africa, across diagnostics, research reagents, and therapeutics. His main countries were Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, but 1991 was the beginning of the Algerian Civil War. “Terrorist groups in the war at the time were specifically targeting people who worked for foreign companies. I had to evacuate all our staff in Algeria because of this potential risk,” he says. The event, while tragic, gave Gill internal credibility, as prior to the evacuation and the civil war he had advised senior staff not to make a major capital investment in Algeria. “It allowed me to rise up the ranks very quickly because I called something that more experienced people missed.”

Boehringer Mannheim then put Gill on as the most junior member of an eight-member leadership team to build the world’s leading immunodiagnostics platform with rein to operate as an in-house entrepreneurial and independent team. The venture was a success. They partnered with Hitachi and pioneered the company’s first truly global diagnostics program across Europe, the US, and Japan. After four years, they developed the Elecsys platform, which to this day is the No. 1 hospital-based immunodiagnostics platform in the world.

The new CEO of Boehringer Mannheim, Max Link, an early pioneer in pharma investing in biotech, had a two-themed vision—to become the major biotech-driven pharma company in the world and to globalize the company. “Someone in top management said, ‘why don’t you talk to him because he has the same vision as you,’” relates Gill. Their 30-minute meeting turned into three hours, and Link offered Gill his two desired jobs on the biotech deal side and commercial. He was placed under the head of corporate development and became co-head of Recormon (erythropoietin [EPO]) marketing worldwide. EPO, sold by Amgen and Boehringer Mannheim, was on the way to becoming the world’s biggest-selling product at the time. The company achieved deals and grew in antibodies, genomics, gene therapy, and cell therapy, as well as expanded its marketing for EPO when the product was approved for use in oncology.

Link suggested Gill make the move into biotech specifically in stem cell therapies, and he did, joining the world’s first stem cell therapy company, Systemix, a spinout of Stanford’s Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. He was then tapped as head of corporate development for one of the earliest gene therapy companies, Megabios. This was followed by a call from “serial entrepreneur” Alejandro Zaffaroni asking Gill to be the business lead in a new spinout from Affymax. The company was called Maxygen and was the pioneer in directed molecular evolution technologies for broad use across pharmaceutical, chemical, and agricultural products.

Gill then was approached by TPG, a private equity company, which had decided to build a growth fund focused on globalization of cutting-edge technologies. Under TPG, Gill was CEO and president of moksha8, a leading Latin American pharma company focused on central nervous system disorders, as well as a biosimilar antibody company called fourteen22. Gill, clearly by now, had achieved part one of his vision, the interpreter/translator/builder of scientific companies.

While Gill was with TPG, the biotech industry fundamentally changed. “Antibodies are no longer innovative, they are incrementally important,” he says. “My point is there is very little biotech that is truly innovative, transformative, and pioneering. We have gone through an incredibly rich period of science, and there is a massive role for incremental biotech. But it’s not my thing.”

Gill wanted to get back to that original biotech world, but only if he could find something that was truly transformative, a platform that would change the course of human healthcare. He took some time off and soon enough David Berry and Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, and founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, offered Gill that opportunity with Evelo Biosciences.

“We have one of those rare opportunities to change the world of medicine in a very profound way,” says Gill. Evelo’s platform technology is based on SINTAX, an unexplored area of human biology that is a sensing system in the gut that governs areas of inflammation and immunity throughout the body. “This gives us the ability to create a new type of medicine, which allows for oral delivery of active pharmacological products to the small intestinal axis. And then that allows for modulation of immunity and inflammation throughout the body,” explains Gill.

Evelo’s EDP 1815 is currently in Phase II and II/III clinical trials for COVID-19, Phase II for psoriasis, and anticipated Phase II for atopic dermatitis in Q3. Other EDPs are also in development (Phase I for inflammation) and preclinical for multiple cancers, neuroinflammation, and metabolism.

Here is where part two of Gill’s dream can become real. SINTAX-based therapeutics are straightforward to deliver, distribute, and manufacture and affordable for all populations, in all regions. They offer the potential to intervene across all stages of disease, including early. Evelo’s treatments open up the potential for the long-term improvement of global healthcare, quality of life, and burden of chronic disease. It is the holy grail of population health.

“These things take time, but that’s OK,” says Gill. “Our SINTAX platform has the potential to be dramatically bigger than antibodies have become in terms of their impact on global healthcare.”

To read the profiles of all 2021 EPL winners, click here.

Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at lhenderson@mjhlifesciences.com.

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