SQZ CEO exits as biotech axes 60% staff; Synlogic succumbs to layoff pressure

Biotech’s layoff sinkhole keeps growing, this time pulling in SQZ Biotechnologies and Synlogic, two Massachusetts companies that have also dropped pipeline programs to stay afloat.

As SQZ sends 60% of its staff packing, CEO and founder Armon Sharei, Ph.D., has exited after nearly 10 years at the helm. The biotech’s board has tapped Howard Bernstein, M.D., Ph.D., former chief scientific officer and current director, to lead as interim CEO, effective immediately. Additionally, Chief Financial Officer Micah Zajic is set to follow in Sharei’s footsteps with plans to leave his role Dec. 31.

The company expects to pay out $5 million in costs tied to the restructuring, consisting mainly of severance and other employee-related costs. The initial cost-saving measures are expected to extend the biotech’s cash runway into 2024.

As part of the restructure, SQZ is also pausing three pipeline programs and prioritizing its second-generation enhanced antigen presenting cells (eAPC) cell therapy program aimed at treating HPV16-positive recurrent, locally advanced or metastatic solid tumors.

“As we navigate an unprecedented operating environment, we plan to be disciplined with our capital and pursue opportunities where we see great potential promise,” Bernstein said in a Nov. 30 release. “We have made the strategic decision to focus our efforts on advancing our eAPC clinical candidate with the aim of reaching a phase 1/2 data readout for our highest-dose monotherapy cohort by the middle of next year.”

SQZ is also considering partnerships for its earlier-stage assets, programs and manufacturing capabilities, according to the news release.

Meanwhile, Synlogic has also succumb to the external pressure, slimming its workforce by 25%. The synthetic biology company lists 93 employees on LinkedIn, meaning a quarter cull would equate to about 23 people.

The company projects paying about $800,000 in costs tied to the workforce reduction and expects the restructuring will extend Synlogic’s cash runway into the second half of 2024.

The realigned organization is “now optimized to execute against our strategic priorities and create a stronger, more agile company,” Synlogic President and CEO Aoife Brennan said in a Nov. 30 release.

The biotech will focus on clinical-stage and certain preclinical research programs, including moving its lead phenylketonuria program into phase 3 trials in 2023.