Whittled down to biotech size, AstraZeneca's antibiotics crew starts over as Entasis

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot made it clear back in early 2014 that he planned to spin off a big chunk of the company's anti-infectives pipeline along with the neuroscience side of R&D. And now more than a year later the pharma company has completed the task, hatcheting down a once large group of researchers and birthing a small biotech with its own pipeline of antibiotics and a core group of investigators.

Entasis CEO Manos Perros

Meet Entasis Therapeutics, which is staying put in Waltham, MA, with a crew of 21 staffers led by Manos Perros, the new CEO and former AstraZeneca site lead. Perros now plans to grow the group to about 30 by the end of the year, as they get closer to a readout on their Phase II data for the lead antibiotic for gonorrhea and start moving one of a group of preclinical programs toward a Phase I trial.

AstraZeneca ($AZN) tipped off FierceBiotech back in February that it had decided to sink $40 million into the new company to complete a spinout that would clip off its early stage anti-infectives effort. At the beginning of this lengthy shedding process in early 2014, the Waltham group had about 175 staffers, according to some former employees who watched it all play out. Initially, AstraZeneca shopped the group to about every company involved in antibiotics, looking for a deal closer to the outlicensing pact it struck with Eli Lilly ($LLY) on a BACE program for Alzheimer's. No one stepped forward, though, leaving Soriot to play the role of startup financier to complete the spinout.

For Perros and his band of survivors, it's an exciting new day, completing a shift from a large R&D group in one of the world's biggest pharma companies to an entrepreneurial, and much smaller, biotech crew with a narrower focus and a simpler R&D agenda.

"We have a pipeline of products, we know what must be done and now it's time to get on with it," says the newly minted biotech CEO. "I think it's a really exciting company."

Entasis is going solo during a relatively upbeat time for antibiotics. Encouraged by new development incentives and the rise of drug-resistant infections around the world, Big Pharmas like Roche ($RHHBY) and Merck ($MRK) have been jumping back into the game after a lengthy absence of major players. And several new biotechs have emerged to fill the niche, looking to advance new products in the clinic.

To get going, Entasis (that's Greek for intensity) brought in a few people with specialized skills, including Michael Fitzgerald as chief financial officer and Chris White as chief business officer. John Mueller, the new vice president for program management and early development, and Ruben Tommasi, the CSO, completed the transition from AstraZeneca with Perros.

The fledgling Entasis sets out with plans to explore potential partnerships for its programs, which are focused on Gram-negative bacteria. And they'll be reaching out to the local venture community and the whole business ecosystem in the greater Boston biotech hub as they grow the company. Over time, they'll make clear how they'll develop their antibiotics, as Perros remains "agnostic" about which markets they'll target.