Business development in a clinical stage vaccine company is constantly changing, intellectually challenging and meaningful job that pushes developments in society.
Caspar Foghsgaard is Director of Business Development at the Norwegian vaccine platform company Vaccibody. The company mainly focuses on cancer, but the platform is broadly applicable and the vaccine has shown a favorable safety profile. It may be also be applied outside cancer e.g., in the infectious diseases area. Their clinical programs is a personalized neoantigen vaccine, where they are running a phase I/IIa basket trial for five indications, and a phase II study with their off-the-shelf cancer vaccine directed against HPV16-related advanced or recurrent cervical cancer.
“We are a small company. My tasks span from creating opportunities for licensing and collaborations to strategy sessions and many other diverse tasks, right from arranging key opinion leader meetings to negotiating lease agreements, to writing press releases,” he says.
Connecting the dots
Caspar Foghsgaard’s days at the company are very varied and they often depend on input from his colleagues. “I just try to connect the dots. It still fascinates me how specialized the industry is across the value chain. Very few days are the same, but obviously there are periods and routines that repeat themselves.”
He and his colleagues have just come back from the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, which takes place in January every year, and he says it is a great place to meet potential industry partners and investors.
“So, a lot of variation, change and most importantly – fun.”
“It requires quite a bit of planning and preparation – and follow-up and catching up on the things that you did not have time to do whilst traveling. In parallel, the organization is growing, so we are moving offices. As we get closer to the end of the month it is time to do the monthly report for the Board. So, a lot of variation, change and most importantly – fun.”
A great combination of skills
Working in business development in the field of life sciences, Caspar has the right kind of combination of degrees. He holds an MSc in Management from the University of Surrey and a BSc (Honours) in Chemistry with Biological Chemistry from the University of St Andrews.
“Today, it appears to be more common and I think PhDs now set applicants apart.”
“Both science and business have always interested me, so for me it was an easy motivation to do both. When I was to apply for my first job, I believe that was also what differentiated me. Today, it appears to be more common and I think PhDs now set applicants apart,” he advises.
He was attracted to the pharma industry early on. The companies impressed him, and he says he was attracted to companies such as Novo Nordisk and Lundbeck.
“It is an international industry with ambitious people who want to make a difference. It is knowledge-based and therefore intellectually challenging, and obviously, potentially improving the lives of patients is a very meaningful job purpose,” he says.
Business development has satisfied both his interests in science and business, but it has also fed his appetite for the new and innovative, he says. “I am a curious person, always eager to learn more.”
Business is people business
Foghsgaard’s professional experience before going to Vaccibody in 2018 spans from business and development and strategy at Novozymes to being an independent consultant for biotech companies. His experience includes diverse transactions within business development, fundraising and mergers and acquisitions.
“In Novozymes we focused a lot on open innovation and MTOR (market, technology, organization and resource) analysis, and how the organizational and resource parts are some of the most critical factors in order to succeed with a project,” he says.
“Business is people business – it starts and ends with people to make things happen.”
He adds that here the importance of stakeholder management also comes to play. “Working with small companies, it is interesting how the individual becomes even more important in creating success. Business is people business – it starts and ends with people to make things happen.”
Many potential avenues
Vaccibody is in a very exciting phase right now, having recently shown that a neoepitope cancer vaccine has the ability to actually shrink tumors. Caspar agrees, and says they have gained a lot of momentum since they published their first and very promising clinical data. Vaccibody is the first company to demonstrate tumor shrinkage, and not just extended progression free survival, with a neoantigen cancer vaccine.
“The trial is a phase I/IIa basket trial, so we are still building data points that will enable us to go into the next phase and ultimately help us design the right trials so that we can get to the patient in the most optimal manner,” he says.
Their ambitions have only increased with the positive data, and he continues, “We hope to position the Vaccibody platform in as many indications and settings as possible. The safety profile is very good, which also opens up for many potential avenues. In any case, we need to analyze and plan so that we make the right decisions and do things in the right order – this is biotech, a success does not happen overnight but rather over a decade.”
Furthermore, Vaccibody has VB10.16, where the first patient will be dosed in a cervical cancer trial in combination with Roche’s atezolizumab during 2020.
“Personally, I also think the microbiome space is fascinating, and it appears we have some good players in the Nordics.”
Overall, Caspar says he thinks that the immunotherapy field is moving at a tremendous pace, whether it be checkpoint inhibitors, CAR-Ts, CR-NKs or TCR therapies. “There is still so much we don’t understand about the tumor microenvironment and the overall immune system. A lot of risks and opportunities to be pursued. I also keep looking to the developments in Next Generation Sequencing and how lowering the cost of sequencing has helped enable the space. Personally, I also think the microbiome space is fascinating, and it appears we have some good players in the Nordics.”
Celebrate every little win
The best part of the job is how science and technology can improve the lives of patients – and push developments in society, states Foghsgaard. “Working with great people and science, and with an innovative product is very motivating. Then, once you succeed after literally a marathon of partnering attempts; or get that positive read-out – that is the best,” he says.
It is a team effort, he continues, “Sharing that success is very rewarding – and then it is important to celebrate every little win.”
“And capital demand is high, so let’s face it – if you are not first or best in class, then forget about it.”
The most challenging part of his job he says is getting in front of potential partners or investors at the early stages with only little or no data, be it immune responses or clinical data. “That is where tenure and a network in the business development circus helps, and stamina and an optimistic nature. The timelines are long, and then add changes in standard of care on top of that, just to heighten the barrier. And capital demand is high, so let’s face it – if you are not first or best in class, then forget about it.”
High risk, high reward
When I ask Caspar in what areas of life sciences Norway is especially strong he says that he thinks it is impressive what the Oslo Cancer Cluster, Radforsk and others have managed to do in the oncology space in particular. “Building on a biotech successes such as Algeta, has fueled a lot of interest in the general space, but it takes talent and innovation, money and time – and plenty of it.”
Clusters enabling critical mass are important, he says. “Denmark has a long tradition in pharma – and an ownership structure to maintain it – and thereby has built critical mass across the value chain. Norway has the oil-wealth, and some of the private wealth is now flowing into biotech. That’s a great story and hopefully it is only the beginning. Biotech is high risk, high reward – with very long time-lines.”
A good proof of the quality of the companies is their ability to attract international talent, and their cross-border collaborations, he concludes.
“Back in my time in Novozymes we worked with Professor Inger Sandlie and licensed technology to use in half-life extension; interestingly she is also a co-inventor on the core Vaccibody patent together with Professor Bjarne Bogen and Agnete B. Fredriksen, our President & CSO and co-founder.”