Flagship’s Afeyan Outlines Biotech’s Top 4 Trends


Today, Noubar Afeyan, founder of Flagship Pioneering, published the platform innovation company’s 2022 Annual Letter, and in it, outlined what he sees as the four top forces shaping the future of biotech.

Earlier this week, a Flagship-founded company, Generate Bio, inked an almost $2 billion deal for protein therapeutics with Amgen. That deal is just one example of Flagship’s success in identifying and helping launch and invest in life science companies. 

#1. Programmable Medicines and Digital Biology. Afeyan notes that in the last decade, as our understanding of biology has increased, “scientists have created new tools to perturb biology more directly and deliberately. As a result, we can start to think of drugs as instructions or programs that have predictable outcomes and vice versa, we can envision an outcome, and then design the right program to achieve it.”

#2. Biology and AI. The Amgen-Generate deal is a good example of AI and machine learning. Generate deploys machine learning at scale to understand the genetic information underlying protein function. Afeyan also points to another Flagship company, Harbinger Health, which launched in December 2021 with $50 million of committed capital. Flagship founded the company in 2018 to develop blood-based tests for early detection of cancer and uses machine learning. 

Afeyan writes, “The implications for drug discovery are truly dizzying, and the next decade promises to upend much of what we know about drug development and human health.”

#3. Biotech Business Environment and the Hunt for Value. Citing a Boston Business Journal article, Afeyan notes that of the top 10 biotech investment rounds in the Boston area last year, the average raised was $397 million. Now compare that to four or five years ago, when a typical Series B round raised $50 million. But he also points out that the public markets have been the opposite, with 2021 being a slow one, especially compared to 2020 when the enthusiasm for anything COVID-19-related was white hot. The focus, he suggests, should be on multiproduct bioplatform companies.

Stephen Berenson and Andy Oh, both with Flagship, wrote of the advantages of platforms, saying, “They have the potential to create numerous product opportunities not only in parallel but also in a highly efficient manner as learning effects from platform optimization and program data create a virtuous cycle of innovation and improvement.” In addition, they can create several related or unrelated programs, where the success of a lead program significantly derisks the other follow-on programs. Bioplatforms also allow the flexibility to quickly enable new programs when previously unforeseen opportunities arise.

#4. A Post-Pandemic Regulatory Reset. Anyone who has been following life sciences for the last several years likely realizes how the regulatory environment underwent a shift during the pandemic. The most obvious is that with the rush to get potential life-saving products out to people, Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) became the go-to approach over standard and slower full approvals. Flagship’s Jim Gilbert, Kathy Biberstein and Stephen Hahn wrote an essay on what they’re referring to as a “Goldilocks” regulatory framework, “To support the global scaling of breakthrough innovation as the science it is regulating and as bold as the problems the innovation is looking to address.”

It’s worth noting that one of the companies Flagship co-founded, and for which Afeyan is chairman of the board of directors, is Moderna. Rarely a day goes by for the last two years that Moderna hasn’t been mentioned in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another Flagship company to hit the news is Foghorn Therapeutics, which in December 2021 entered a strategic collaboration with Loxo Oncology at Eli Lilly. They will be using Foghorn’s proprietary Gene Traffic Control platform for oncology applications. Other Flagship companies include Tessera Therapeutics, Laronde, Indigo Agriculture, Ring Therapeutics, Denali Therapeutics, Sana Biotechnology, Codiak BioSciences, Rubius Therapeutics and many others.


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