Moncef Slaoui, the former GlaxoSmithKline research boss who became the Trump administration’s vaccine tsar, is returning to the private sector at a new venture that is rolling up smaller biotech companies in an attempt to take on Big Pharma.
Slaoui, who was scientific head of the US government’s Operation Warp Speed until January, has been appointed chief scientific officer of Centessa, an umbrella company created from the merger of 10 biotechs backed by European venture capital firm Medicxi and unveiled on Tuesday.
The launch capitalises on the rush of investor interest in medical science since the pandemic, and aims to speed up the development of new drugs using lessons from Warp Speed and by giving scientific entrepreneurs a greater stake in their projects.
“There seemed to be a ceiling level of success, and time to achieving success,” Slaoui said of pre-pandemic drug development. “All of a sudden, we have a demonstration, frankly, that it can be dramatically faster, dramatically better. Now, it’s like you have one more inning in the game.”
Warp Speed helped fund several Covid-19 vaccines, which broke records with less than a year from start to approval. Slaoui, who remains a consultant to the operation, said it showed the benefits of research and development with a “laser sharp” focus on data, even in the middle of a “hurricane”.
Slaoui is also a partner at Medixci, which will roll its stakes in the merged companies into a shareholding in Centessa. The new umbrella company includes drug development programmes ranging from cancer to blood pressure. It has four products in clinical trials, including a drug for kidney disease in a phase 3 study and a cancer drug in phase 2/3.
Centessa chief executive Saurabh Saha, a former senior vice-president of research and development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, said it hopes to add more biotech companies.
“We hope to be a large pharmaceutical company one day. Our aspirations are very high, and we hope to add an 11th and 12th or 13th company,” he said.
Centessa has raised $250m in a series A fundraising round led by General Atlantic, Vida Ventures and Janus Henderson Investors, it said. T Rowe Price and Wellington Management Company have also put in money.
The company says it is trying to create a third way between large pharmaceutical companies — which spread risk but are often bureaucratic, moving slowly with high overheads — and biotechs, which tend to concentrate risk on a single product or platform.
Centessa is set up so scientists will have far greater potential rewards than at a large pharmaceutical company, holding shares in their unit and the overall umbrella company, and will leave if their project fails.
The model is an evolution of one introduced by Slaoui as head of R&D for GSK, where he broke down the department into “discovery performance units” that gave scientists more freedom and a greater incentive to perform.
“It really changes the odds towards higher success — or at least faster, clearer decision-making,” he said. “It was diluted in GSK. I tried to create what I called ‘life-changing prizes’ where there was £1m or £2m. Not what you can achieve with great success in biotech.”