The drug doyenne
The gene-editing technology known as CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize medicine — and Katrine Bosley is working to turn the tool into a marketable therapeutic. If her track record is an indication, don’t bet against her.
Her company, Editas Medicine, spun out of research that was discovered at the Broad Institute, and it’s now one of three Kendall Square startups working to train CRISPR’s genetic scissors on fixing human disease. Bosley took the helm in 2014, helping Editas raise $120 million in venture cash the following year and then pull off a $94 million initial public offering this February.
Bosley has spent more than 25 years in biotech in and around Kendall, starting her career when modern titans like Biogen, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Genzyme were still in their infancies.
Her last two companies, Avila Therapeutics and Adnexus Therapeutics, got bought out by larger drug makers in high-dollar deals. But this time, Bosley intends to keep Editas independent as it moves toward starting its first clinical trial next year for a rare, inherited blindness disorder.
She also plans to keep the company in Cambridge, where she works within blocks of the investors, entrepreneurs, and drug development veterans that keep Kendall ticking. “You’re going to run into these people all the time,” she says, “and it creates that density of interaction.”
A sharp mind
Phillip Sharp has spent the past 40 years straddling the worlds of academia and industry in Kendall Square, casting a long shadow in both directions.
As a scientist, his pioneering work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to the discovery of gene splicing, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1993. As an entrepreneur, he cofounded a pair of giants, Biogen and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. The former is the most valued company in Massachusetts; the latter, a fast-growing drug maker working on Nobel-caliber science of its own.
As a self-described “old fart,” Sharp knows the history of Kendall as well as anyone, from its days as a dispossessed hub for manufacturing to its present as an epicenter of innovation in biotech. Kendall’s future, Sharp says, will hinge on how well the area’s biopharma mainstays are able to improve their collaborating efforts with newer tech neighbors like Google and Microsoft.
As Sharp sees it, the intersection of engineering and biology is a promising, wide-open field, and Kendall’s denizens have the potential to uncover new avenues of health care — provided they can work together.
“We know we have the best integration of hospitals, basic research, commercial activities, and computer science in the country,” he says. “If we’re not big players in that space, it’s our failure.”
The biotech enabler
Noubar Afeyan started his first life sciences company as a 24-year-old, fresh out of grad school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, more than 35 companies later, his Flagship Ventures is a Kendall kingmaker, having helped finance some of the buzziest biotech startups in the world.
Born to an Armenian family in Lebanon, Afeyan came to Cambridge for a PhD in biochemical engineering and never left. After selling his first company, PerSeptive Biosystems, in 1997, he sought to get back in the startup game but wanted to avoid the risky trial and error of traditional biotech entrepreneurialism.
So he industrialized the process.
Founded in 2000, Flagship places many of its bets on existing companies, but through its VentureLabs division, the firm devotes much of its time to creating startups from scratch. VentureLabs acts as a combination talent scout, incubator, and seed-stage financier all in one, licensing new technologies and building companies around them.
Outside of his work in business, Afeyan is an active humanitarian, cofounding the Armenian genocide remembrance project 100 Lives. Last month, accompanied by George Clooney, Afeyan went to Armenia to distribute a $1.1 million award granted to organizations working to prevent genocide.
The new chief
After more than a decade among the faculty of Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Jay Bradner has ventured across the Charles River to lead the research division of one of the world’s largest drug companies.
In March, he took over the Kendall-headquartered Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research, stepping in to helm a team of more than 6,000 scientists for a company that spends about $7 billion a year on research and development.
On paper, it’s a culture clash: Bradner is perhaps best known for discovering a promising cancer therapy and then giving it away — something Novartis, like all pharma companies, tends not to do. But the physician-researcher believes his commitment to open science won’t be stifled by everyday life in a giant company.
Bradner sees Kendall Square as an interconnected community, bridging academia, industry, and investors. And he wants Novartis, Cambridge’s largest private employer, to help unite the neighborhood.
“There’s no question that the adjacency of scientists, like the adjacency of institutions, breeds collaboration,” Bradner said. “And so it’s my job to crack the doors open.”