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Henri Termeer rediscovers the 'Genzyme feel' in world of biotech startups

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Two years after leaving the biotech giant Genzyme, Henri Termeer has found increased demand for his expertise and personal resources from a growing crowd of startups in the Boston area and The Netherlands.

Henri Termeer

Termeer, the former chairman and CEO of Genzyme, left the biotech two months after Sanofi ($SNY) acquired it for more than $20 billion in April 2011 to seize control of its lucrative drugs for rare diseases. He was expected to stay involved in biotech, having engineered the growth of Genzyme from a small venture in the early 1980s to a multibillion-dollar force in the industry. Yet not even he could have predicted all the new companies and entrepreneurs he would add to his professional circle.

He walked away from Genzyme with at least $158.4 million in stock and severance payouts. And he invests his own money in startups. But things have changed.

He is operating without the war chest of Genzyme, which could afford to write fat checks of $100 million or more to explore new treatments without fretting the potential for failure, as was the case in the company's jettisoned collaboration with PTC Therapeutics to test a compound for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

"In a company, of course, you have resources and you can pull together, depending on how you prioritize it, resources around a particular idea. And you have some level of pull on that," Termeer told FierceBiotech in an interview. "When you're on the outside, you're dependent on many other people that would help you in a much more fragmented way. I find those [companies] extremely exciting."

Last month Termeer joined the board of the standout startup Moderna Therapeutics, which has found intense pharma and investor interest in the use of synthetic messenger RNA molecules for coaxing normal cells in the body to churn out protein drugs to combat diseases. Cambridge, MA-based Moderna offers a way of producing and developing therapeutics without expensive cell-based processes.

"I was attracted to that notion that felt very much like the Genzyme feel many years ago," said Termeer, who was raised in The Netherlands and has an accent to prove it. 

Unlike some other startups Termeer is advising, Moderna is flush with cash from a widely publicized pact announced in March with AstraZeneca ($AZN), which handed the small biotech outfit $240 million in cash up front and other perks in return for rights to as many as 40 drugs in the cardio-metabolic and oncology fields. Internally, Moderna plans to research its messenger RNA therapies for rare diseases and cancer.

"It is just in that phase of trying to define its identity and what it is going to develop all the way by itself," Termeer said of Moderna. "That is a fantastic moment because with that you shape what the future will look like."

Termeer counsels startups to resist the temptation of giving up ownership of key assets to deep-pocketed pharma companies, he said, and he advises companies to prioritize early on which assets to guard for internal research and which ones to keep for revenue-generating partnerships.

"Unless you do that up front," Termeer said, "you will be seduced by the moment where someone comes to you and says, 'We'll pay you a lot for that asset.'"

With his new role at Moderna, Termeer has formal adviser or director roles at no fewer than 9 life sciences outfits and biotech startups. On top of those duties, he serves on more than a half-dozen other boards for groups such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the Leadership Council of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative and Project HOPE.

"I'm not bored in any way," Termeer said. "I'm busier than ever, and it's a privilege to work in this space."

Termeer gives different types of support to companies based on their needs. At Aveo Oncology ($AVEO), where Termeer serves as chairman, the company faces a potential denial of its application for approval of the kidney cancer drug tivozanib from the FDA, after the agency's advisory panel voted 13-1 against endorsing the company's bid last week. This leaves the company to consider the future of its lead asset and best shot at product sales revenue.

"You can imagine that the company is thinking through what all this means," Termeer said. "At this point it is too early to comment." 

For other biotech outfits, Termeer has gotten involved at the assembly stage. Last year he became an adviser and early investor in Leiden, Netherlands-based ProQR Therapeutics, a newly hatched startup focused on RNA correction technology for treating the inherited lung disease called cystic fibrosis.