Five Prime founder Williams makes way for new CEO

Five Prime Therapeutics has tapped into its existing management to replace current president and CEO Rusty Williams, with chief operating officer Aron Knickerbocker lined up to take the helm early next year.

Williams will step aside from the two roles on Jan. 1 to take up the position of executive chairman, says a Five Prime announcement, whereupon Knickerbocker will take over the running of the immuno-oncology biotech he first joined as business development lead in 2009 after several years at Genentech.

The handover sees Williams move aside from the main role at Five Prime 16 years after founding the company in 2001, having previously held senior positions at Chiron (now Novartis) and UCSF.

It’s the end of an era at Five Prime, but Lewis maintains that Knickerbocker—who orchestrated a $1.74 billion partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb that will pair the biotech’s lead I-O candidate cabiralizumab with BMS’ blockbuster Opdivo (nivolumab)—is the right man for the job.

Cabiralizumab is a colony stimulating factor-1 receptor (CSF1R) that targets macrophages in the tumor microenvironment and is being developed for several different cancer indications. Tumor-associated macrophages are elevated in many cancer types and are thought to suppress the immune response against malignant cells. The first data from studies pairing the drug with Opdivo are due next month at the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer in Maryland.

Knickerbocker “has been instrumental in the design and execution of our corporate strategy—whether it be clinical, operational or financial—which contributed to his promotion to COO,” according to Lewis.

Not all of Five Prime’s partnerships have developed as hoped however, and in the summer the company jettisoned a $460 million-plus alliance with InhibRx saying it made the move to maintain a tight focus on priority programs that it can bring forward quickly.

“We are not just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what's fixed, as some would argue is a trend in immuno-oncology,” said Lewis during the company’s interim results conference call just ahead of the InhibRx announcement. “We are using science and clinical thinking.”

Knickerbocker starts with a $500,000 base salary and the potential to earn 50% of that in an annual bonus, according to an SEC filing.

Lewis insists he intends to take a “more strategic and innovative role” within Five Prime, saying he will “continue to be very involved as executive chairman, as chair of the…scientific advisory board, and in leading a small internal innovation group focused on generating potential new therapeutic approaches in immuno-oncology.”