Using Big Pharma lessons to drive startup innovation

Fierce 15

Co-founders: Martin Mackay, Stephen Uden and Jeffrey Fryer
Based: Farmington, Connecticut
Founded: January 2018
Clinical focus: Rare diseases

The scoop: “We all feel that we’ve got several more medicines left in us.”

That’s one of the mantras behind Rallybio and its trio of co-founders, Alexion veterans Martin Mackay, Stephen Uden and Jeffrey Fryer. Their mission, put simply, is to do exactly what they’ve done before: develop new drugs for rare diseases. But this time, with their own startup and $37 million in fresh funding, they can go where the science takes them, regardless of disease, therapeutic area or modality—and without the concerns that may dog a larger biotech firm.

The team plans to in-license and shepherd assets to the clinic by leveraging their personal network of third-party partners in manufacturing and contract research, developed over their years in the industry. They’re scouting worldwide for small molecules, proteins, antibodies and other proven therapeutic methods they believe can help move the needle against rare diseases.

What makes Rallybio fierce: The startup provides a pointed example in a year dotted with top R&D executives deciding to leave Big Pharma and launch their own companies.

“Now is the time to harvest our experience and have this focus on rare disease. We believe the best way to do that is in a small company,” explains Mackay, who knows the difference; he headed up R&D at AstraZeneca before joining Alexion and now serves in an executive leadership role at Rallybio. “We can work without distraction,” he adds. “We can focus on the job at hand.”

One of the freedoms afforded by contracting out certain drug development tasks is being able to pick the best people for the job, Uden says. In a larger organization, it simply makes sense to use in-house resources when they’re relevant and available. And while the founders will never say a bad word about their time in Big Pharma, they firmly believe the big-company habit of organizing staff into distinct therapeutic areas—while appropriate in that context—can still constrain a company’s thinking.

“One drug might work in another disorder, but it's not in the therapeutic area, so it will kind of languish. I saw similar things in other companies,” says Uden, who oversees Rallybio’s R&D. “But when you've got top-notch drug developers, you can look at a broad range and be opportunistic. ... You can apply all of our previous learnings and address the disease. Not, ‘Terribly sorry, we can't do that. It’s not the therapeutic area we're interested in.’”

“We sit around the table in the morning and the afternoon, and we have the subject matter experts on the phone with us,” says Fryer, who serves as Rallybio’s finance guru.

“We listen and make decisions and can act very quickly without the hierarchy that tends to exist in larger organizations. We feel that we can bring things forward a little bit faster.”

In addition, a smaller company can be a little more creative with their licensing deals. Rallybio could potentially bring on other companies for an advisory panel or consultancy role instead of keeping them at arm’s length after acquiring assets.

“They have laboratories or businesses to run, and we want to be great partners and collaborators,” Mackay says. “Something I've learned in my time of doing deals is the partner wants you to treat their asset as if it was your own, that you really believed in it and would push it forward.”

That ownership mindset is reflected in the company culture, and is something they look for with each new employee. With the reality of drug development work, every project is doomed to have some kind of problem—and for a small company like this one to succeed, each new hire needs to develop an owner’s point of view and the tenacity to push through.

Since its series A raise in April, Rallybio has pivoted from business planning to building out the team and exploring potential development opportunities, with a number of negotiations ongoing. They've looked at more than 100 candidates and are doing due diligence while digging deeper into the science.

In describing the company’s largely agnostic approach to therapeutic areas, Mackay said there’s only a few they plan to avoid: “The oncology field is very busy, infectious disease is very specialized, and ophthalmology is kind of device-driven,” he said.

Otherwise, he figures, “Diseases have no boundaries, so why should we?”

Investors: 5AM Ventures, Canaan Partners, New Leaf Venture Partners and Connecticut Innovations


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