Business Moment: Success in Choppy Waters

May 22, 2024

Sage CEO Barry Greene speaking during a State of Possible panel wearing a gray plaid suit and open collar shirt. He is flanked by Mike Nally to his right and Sharon Cunningham to his left.
Sage Therapeutics CEO Barry Greene, flanked by Generate Biomedicine’s Mike Nally and Shorla Oncology’s Sharon Cunningham. Photo/Reba Saldanha

The story of Massachusetts’ remarkable success in the life science industry is one of innovation to be sure, but also of steadfast resilience. From the start, industry leaders have been able to survive and thrive through significant challenges.

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In recent years, that list of hurdles includes the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory obstacles, and economic uncertainty. But even with those challenges as an everyday reality, companies continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in drug discovery and development, paving the way for breakthrough treatments, landmark approvals, and healthier futures for patients.

These headwinds – as well as Massachusetts’ well-known perseverance and grit – were the topic of a recent panel discussion at MassBio’s annual State of Possible Conference featuring prominent biotech business leaders and moderated by Boston Business Journal Executive Editor Doug Banks.

Generate:Biomedicines CEO Mike Nally speaks during a panel discussion with a blue blazer and white open collar shirt and wearing glasses. The background is blue with the MassBio logo in white.
Generate:Biomedicines CEO Mike Nally at the State of Possible Conference. Photo/Reba Saldanha

Generate Biomedicines CEO Mike Nally highlighted the importance of adaptability and flexibility during times of economic uncertainty.

“Starting a company and scaling up during the pandemic [was] really hard,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have raised significant funding, but the talent market has been incredibly competitive, with many skilled workers being drawn to the tech industry.” 

As a pioneer in generative biology, Generate competes more with the tech industry for jobs because its work combines machine learning, automated experimentation, and cutting-edge science. Nally celebrated raising more than $270 million in Series C funding last year while acknowledging that companies must continue to grapple with funding challenges coming out of the COVID boom (the Series C round was lower than its Series B round of $370M, the company’s previous record high in 2021).

“In 2021 we were in a situation where everyone was trying to find a reason to get involved with every company,” Nally said. “In 2023, it was a case where nobody wanted to commit capital to anything that was at risk and you had to overcome massive headwinds. I think everyone in this audience has felt the good and the bad in really quick succession.”

Shorla Oncology CEO and Co-Founder Sharon Cunningham echoed those sentiments, discussing delays her company faced in getting products to market due to COVID-related slowdowns and FDA inspections. She also described the challenges of expanding the company to Boston from its headquarters in Ireland – which included her own move to Cambridge – in the middle of the pandemic. During that time, the FDA suspended all overseas inspections, delaying the company getting to market with its first drug by 18 months.

Shorla Oncology CEO and Co-Founder Sharon Cunningham during the MassBio State of Possible Conference. She's wearing a white pant suit and the background is blue.
Shorla Oncology CEO and Co-Founder Sharon Cunningham. Photo/Reba Saldanha

“Thankfully, we came through it,” she said. Despite ongoing economic challenges familiar to anyone in the industry, Shorla raised $35 million in Series B funding last year.

Cunningham also discussed drug price regulations, saying that while a lot of attention is paid to high drug prices, she’d also like to see something done on the low end to ensure there is enough supply of generic drugs for patients.

“In the generic space where there’s a huge amount of drug shortages there needs to be something done in terms of ensuring that it remains competitive for companies and for the government to intervene and not allow prices to go too low,” she said. “I’ve spoken to clinicians, and they’ve told me stories about patients and caregivers having to drive across the United States to get their hands on drugs that are in shortage..”

Drawing on his extensive industry experience, Sage Therapeutics CEO Barry Greene talked about the need for proactive engagement on the part of biotech business leaders with policymakers and regulators to ensure a supportive environment for innovation.

“We need to be proactive in telling our story and advocating for policies that encourage innovation, not stifle it,” Greene said. He also applauded the Healey Administration’s efforts to continue building strong connections between government and biotech within the state.

“She gets it,” Greene said of the governor. “She believes in the innovation of this state. She understands that there’s really no ecosystem in the world like Massachusetts, like Cambridge…she’ll go to bat for all of us if you ask her to so that’s hugely important.”

Seaport Therapeutics Founder and CEO Daphne Zohar, with moderator Doug Banks (left) and Mike Nally, CEO of Generate:Biomedicines. Photo/Reba Saldanha

Seaport Therapeutics Founder and CEO Daphne Zohar also underscored the idea that the industry, particularly small business owners and founders, has to take a more focused approach to storytelling, sharing with key stakeholders, policymakers, and the public the positive impact biotech has on improving the lives of patients. Earlier in the day, Tess Cameron of RA Capital issued a call to action for the industry to inspire “fans” through its quests to develop new therapies.

“There’s a lot of issues which I think probably emanate from the idea that the industry and its reputation are really misunderstood and probably miscommunicated by biopharma in general,” Zohar said. “We have a challenge to explain to legislators that the industry is made up of entrepreneurs…who raised their first funding from angel investors and built the company from the ground up and these are small businesses.”

Overall, the discussion served as a reminder of the incredible resilience and ingenuity of the biotech industry in Massachusetts. Despite the challenges of recent years, companies continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible, driven by a shared mission to improve patient lives. “If we keep doing right by patients,” Greene said, “the profits will follow.”

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