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A well-funded cancer drug startup brings on GSK’s Axel Hoos as CEO

Scorpion Therapeutics, a new biotech startup that’s raised $270 million to develop better drugs for cancer, is drawing from big pharma for its next leader, announcing Wednesday the appointment of GlaxoSmithKline executive Axel Hoos as its new CEO.

Hoos, who helped develop the cancer immunotherapy Yervoy while working at Bristol Myers Squibb, joined GSK in 2012 and has led the British drugmaker’s oncology research unit since 2015. At Scorpion, Hoos is replacing Adam Friedman, who’s served as interim CEO since February.

So far, Scorpion has kept its research plans relatively quiet, although its ambitions are broad. Like many other cancer biotechs, the company preaches precision medicine and aims to advance drugs that are either better targeted to tumors than existing medicines, or can latch onto targets previously considered “undruggable.”

At GSK, Hoos has helped rebuild an oncology pipeline that was left bare following a 2015 deal that shipped the company’s cancer drugs and research work to Novartis.

While GSK still trails leading cancer drugmakers like Merck & Co., Bristol Myers Squibb, Roche and even home country rival AstraZeneca, the company in the past year won notable U.S. approvals for its immunotherapy Jemperli and for Blenrep, the first multiple myeloma drug of its type.

Another drug, Zejula, has secured expanded clearances in ovarian cancer, although a competing treatment from AstraZeneca and Merck remains dominant.

The string of approvals put GSK at an “inflection point” in its rebuild, according to Hoos, who said in an interview he felt drawn to constructing a new research pipeline at Scorpion. (GSK announced a new ten-year strategy late last month.)

“If I make the leap from a large, comfortable environment at GSK to a startup, there’s a good reason for it,” he said.

While Scorpion hasn’t revealed much publicly, it’s been able to convince a wide range of investors of its research’s promise. The company launched last October with $108 million in Series A funding from Atlas Venture, Omega Funds, Vida Ventures and others.

A little more than two months later Scorpion raised $162 million more in a Series B round that included “crossover” investors like EcoR1 and Casdin Capital. Crossover rounds typically form the foundation for a future initial public offering.

Helping guide Scorpion through both of those raises was Gary Glick, the founder of Lycera and IFM Therapeutics, two privately held biotechs that struck acquisition deals with larger companies. Glick formed Scorpion with Keith Flaherty, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and a founder of Loxo Oncology, as well as Liron Bar-Peled and Gaddy Getz of Harvard Medical School.

But, by February, Glick was replaced on an interim basis by Friedman and no longer serves on the company’s board of directors.

“As a co-founder of the company, Gary played an instrumental role in the conception and creation of Scorpion Therapeutics,” Scorpion said in a statement. “He deserves a great deal of credit for the momentum achieved over the previous year and we wish him all the best with his future endeavors.”

Hoos said he’s eager to take Scorpion forward and share more of what the company’s working on. By the end of next year, the biotech aims to start clinical testing of its first molecule, according to Hoos.

Scorpion is drawing from a number of different fields, including chemical proteomics and computational methods for drug design, to develop drug candidates in the “white space” left unaddressed by existing medicines, Hoos said. Advances in medicinal chemistry, meanwhile, have opened up new ways of targeting cancer genes that had previously evaded researchers’ efforts.

“We know so much more about cancer targets today than we ever knew before,” said Hoos. “In some instances, we couldn’t go after them because [while] we had biologic knowledge, we didn’t have the technology.”

Hoos said Scorpion plans to keep building out its team and likely would look toward an IPO in the future as well.