The pair once worked together at Seattle flagship cell therapy company Juno Therapeutics, where Bishop was CEO and Harr was COO and CFO.
After Juno was acquired by Celgene in 2018 for more than $9 billion, Bishop and Harr went on to form new companies. Both are co-founders of Seattle-based Sana Biotechnology, where Harr is CEO and Bishop serves as chair of the board.
The duo also headlined the 2022 Life Science Innovation Northwest event on Wednesday. The meeting, sponsored by the trade group Life Science Washington, was held in person for the first time in two years.
Following are some highlights from the chat, followed by a Q&A with GeekWire. Both are edited for brevity and clarity. The meeting continues on Thursday, so stay tuned for more coverage.
On the origins of a great company and building teams:
Bishop: If you’re working on a problem you deeply care about, you would rather focus on something epically important and fail. So, I think the more important the idea, the better chance of changing people’s lives if you’re successful, the easier it is to attract amazing people, and the ball is rolling.
Harr: What’s really great about complex and hard problems is that none of us have the answer … and you therefore get a bunch of people who are really motivated by working together, who are really intellectually curious.
Bishop: People pay incredibly close attention, almost subconsciously, to how authentic leaders are. How do you deal with bad news, how you deal with the things that go well, how you deal with members of the team that are not showing up in the right way. We talk about it all the time.
On managing partnerships:
Bishop: I think of the words of one of our old mentors who sadly is no longer with us, Howard Pien (formerly non-executive chair of Juno’s board). He said to both of us, remember the most important thing you’re negotiating for the partnership is not money — it’s control. Of course, you can never keep complete control. Start with the things that control the destiny of your product development, and your team and your company. The second thing … is that there are really deep, trusting relationships.
On what makes biotech better and how to keep it that way:
Harr: We [biotech] really have one competitive advantage [over Big Pharma]. And that’s that we make faster and better decisions. And so often partnerships get into a position where you have big company decision making, and little company resources. That just destroys value. And I was thinking, how do you really make this work? You get big company resources, and little company decision making.
Bishop: The fact that all of us in our small-to-medium sized companies have got so much skin in the game, that’s our superpower over big companies.
On tech investors moving into biotech:
Harr: It’s imperative to have clarity in what you want to do, and what your mission is. And then get alignment with investors around that, because as soon you are in a different place, it can be very, very complicated and difficult to run a company.
And one of the great things about people who come over from technology is this idea to just “break things.” I think there is an urgency and an understanding of the art of the possible that is inspiring to those of us who dealt in a regulated industry for decades. The flip side of that is they sometimes are really challenged by the complexities and the pace that comes with being in a regulated industry and the responsibility that we have in putting a medicine into a human being.
I think that those tensions can be very difficult both with investors and with employees. But it’s inevitable that this has to happen, because deep learning and data sciences are converging across industries, and we need each other to really make the maximal progress. And I’m very, very convinced that the next 20 years are going to be more disruptive than the past 20 years in our industry, and we have an opportunity to do things that were not possible, and we won’t do it without data.
The GeekWire interview with Harr and Bishop is below.
GW: You’ve been in the business of turning ideas into complex therapies. What are some factors that slow down the pipeline, that keep therapies from getting to patients?
Steve Harr: One of our aspirations at Sana is to really work so that access to our medicines is never decided by where you’re born. And there are real challenges to that. First and foremost, there’s a scale problem — you have to make enough. But I think society has confused access and pricing. Think through copays as an example — the idea is to discourage overuse, which makes sense in a lot of areas of healthcare. But why is it that the largest copays are on things like cancer drugs? No one’s getting treated for cancer and abusing the system. As a society we are bankrupting patients without thinking through the ramifications. If you get a bone marrow transplant, it costs a million dollars, copays might be hundreds. If you get a CAR T cell, which costs $400,000 and is maybe safer and more effective, it might cost the patient $80,000 to $100,000. I think society hasn’t figured that out.
GW: Aren’t some drugs just too expensive?
Bishop: There are undoubtably drugs that are way too expensive. But it is also a fact that the most cost-effective interventions in medicine are good drugs.
GW: How do high costs to patients slow down the pipeline? When costs to the patient are uncertain, does it affect investment?
Harr: The way it slows down progress is when you actually create a winner [an effective therapy], investors aren’t confident that you’re going to win. [In addition, choosing the right company can be complex for investors and the regulatory environment also has uncertainty.]
GW: What else can be done to speed up the pipeline?
Bishop: One important point, particularly in cancer, is improving access to clinical trials. You know, when you look at how many people have diverse backgrounds [taking part in] clinical trials, it’s woeful. And I think by the way, it’s part of the same access to medicines problem.
Harr: I wish we had more great people. This is an industry where people make all of the difference. The technologies and the potential of this field are growing so quickly and the number of great people to actually execute on that is not growing as quickly, and that is a problem for every company. It’s a wonderful problem to have, because it means we have to invest in more people and it means we have all kinds of opportunities scientifically.
GW: What excites you about the biotech ecosystem in the Seattle region and what stands out about it?
Harr: There’s a tremendous nexus of basic science that occurs here led by a cadre of academic institutions. It creates a creative spark that allows innovation to happen, both in terms of technologies as well as the people. I’d say the second is that when people move here, they really want to stay. Making medicines is hard and it takes time. And there will always be setbacks along the way. And turning an idea into medicine requires a lot of wisdom and wisdom is experience. And one of the things that makes Seattle special is that when people join companies here, they’re a pretty gritty and resilient group of people who are willing to see ideas through. And I think that in some other places, as soon as a setback happens, they say, oh, maybe I walk across the street and go to a different company. And that is not what happens here. And that’s how ideas become really impactful medicines. It takes people actually caring and sticking around for a while.
One of the things that’s allowing Seattle to thrive was this ecosystem that was led by Hans that was created around Juno. … I think that that we’re in a really robust time for Seattle. The level of innovation and the number of companies is really astounding.
GW: What can local and regional governments do to promote biotech in the Seattle area?
Bishop: There’s all sorts of things that some of the other clusters are doing, whether it’s Texas or Massachusetts, to incentivize companies, and that’s not happening in the state here.
Harr: R&D tax credits. … Here, we also get taxed [on high paying jobs]. It’s not the decider on where you grow and what you do, but on the margin that really matters. This is also one of the few environments that you don’t get support for building manufacturing.
I think that almost every person who has the drive to start and build a company doesn’t look at the impediments. They look at the opportunities. The art of the possible is changing, in terms of what we can do for patients.
GW: Speaking of opportunities, Sana is taking advantage of new technologies like CRISPR gene editing, but what technologies do you see even further on the horizon?
Harr: Every time you have a massive disruption in tools, it takes a while to figure out: “How do I intercede in important biology with this new tool? How do I reduce it to practice so that I can reproducibly make it at real scale?” We have these tools that have been created over five to 15 years. We can now more or less do anything you want to the genome: paste, modify, turn up, turn down, at least in a petri dish. Figuring out how to intercede in important biology and do that inside the body is where all of the funds are going to be and all of the disruption is going to happen.
Sana is motivated by this idea of being able to deliver any payload to any cell in a specific and repeatable way. So you can target where you go. I think that the fusosome technology Sana has [enabling delivery of cargo like new genes to cells] has the potential to do that.
Bishop: I think it is the multiple advances in all those areas that Steve said, that create this opportunity space that I don’t think we’ve had in … maybe ever.
Harr: Building these medicines is like putting together a computer. One of the real challenges that we’ve all faced is often the components of the computer are owned by different parts of our ecosystem. And so, creating companies where either you’re able through partnerships or through your own capabilities to bring together all the component parts to really make disruptive medicines is both the opportunity and the challenge of what we’re doing. Because these are complex medicines that take advantage of multiple advances, not a singular advance.