Grail hires Cook from Roche as third CEO in 5 months

Grail is best known for hoovering up more than $1 billion in investments to fund huge, ambitious cancer-detection studies.

Grail has persuaded Jennifer Cook to walk away from her role as Roche’s global head of clinical operations. The coup means Grail will start next year led by a CEO with 30 years of experience in biopharma, having been run by a former Google executive until August.

Cook started out at Genentech in 1987 and, aside from a four-year spell at Prizm Pharmaceuticals in the early 1990s, has been there ever since. After decades spent rising through the ranks, Cook’s career reached its apogee in January when Roche named her as global head of clinical operations. But she has now decided to cut her time in the role short to move to Grail.

In Grail’s telling of events, Cook is replacing interim CEO Bill Rastetter, who took up the position in August when Jeff Huber stepped down. But the statement Grail put out at the time of Rastetter’s appointment reads like the position is permanent. There are no uses of “interim” or discussions of the search for a permanent successor to Huber. At the time of writing, Grail’s website still refers to Rastetter as its CEO without using the “interim” prefix. 

Whatever the backstory, Rastetter will return to just holding the title of chairman from next year. 

The move puts Cook in charge of the superlatively well-financed Illumina spinout at a time when it is executing near-term product opportunities while working toward its ambitious overarching goal.

Grail is best known for hoovering up more than $1 billion in investments to fund huge, ambitious cancer-detection studies. But it has now also unveiled near-term plans, notably the introduction of an early screening test for nasopharyngeal cancer in Asia next year. Grail laid the groundwork for its move into the commercial arena by buying liquid biopsy startup Cirina.

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Cook spent her time at Roche on the drug, not diagnostic, side of the business. But her résumé is nonetheless a more natural fit for the challenges awaiting Grail than that of her predecessor in the role, Huber. 

Huber built his name leading development of critical Google products such as ads, apps and maps, before moving over to its secretive R&D unit X. Verily, Google’s life science subsidiary, began life as part of Google X, so Huber had some exposure to the field before becoming the founding CEO of Grail. But Cook’s roots in the field go far deeper.