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Why former Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez joined a microbiome startup's board

September 24, 2018
Life sciences

Former Novartis chief executive Joseph Jimenez has joined the board of microbiome startup uBiome.

uBiome, a San Francisco startup that sells commercial tests that use DNA sequencing to identify what microbes are in a person’s stool or, for one test, in the vagina, has raised $83 million from venture capitalists to fund an entrée into drug development. It’s also signed up a board member with pharma expertise: former Novartis chief executive Joseph Jimenez.

Jimenez said in an interview that after meeting with more than 30 companies, uBiome is one of “a small handful” in which he will take a role. “I believe uBiome is a company that is well positioned to break new ground scientifically,” Jimenez says. He points to the DNA sequences that the company has from 250,000 patients—expected to reach 1 million next year—and the 200 patents it has either been granted or that are under review.

“Joe just stunned us with his brilliance,” says Jessica Richman, one of uBiome’s founders. “We loved his approach, his thinking about things, we really enjoyed talking with him.”

The idea behind uBiome is that the microbes in the gut or elsewhere in the body play an important role in all sorts of diseases, including inflammatory bowel disorders, metabolic disorders, and cancer. But the exact role of these microbes is still uncertain, and it’s still a guess whether changing microbial balances with drugs will be able to affect a disorder like diabetes or Crohn’s disease. Richman agues that uBiome’s broad database, built from a combination of research studies and sales, “will lead to insights and treatments that have not been possible.” As part of the drug discovery effort, she says that the company is looking to make some key hires. It is also opening an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the biotech hub where Novartis also has one of its main research labs.

Jimenez’s last moment in the public eye was in May, when it emerged that under his watch Novartis had hired Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, as a consultant, only to let the relationship lie fallow because, Novartis says, Cohen could not do the job. Novartis still paid Cohen $1.2 million. But Jimenez says that news has not slowed his efforts to find his next act. “No,” he says. “I think it’s just old news. It’s old news.”

Richman says the Cohen story did not worry her. “We looked into that a little bit,” she says. “I can’t say we did a full background check. My understanding is that was not as extensive as portrayed and that there wasn’t any wrongdoing on their part.”

Jimenez says he’s still figuring out what he’s going to do next. “I’ve passed on a number of options,” he says. But he’s looking forward to seeing what he can do outside a big pharmaceutical company.

“There are certain things you can do as a large pharma company, and there are certain things you can’t do because of your infrastructure,” he says. “It’s easy to want to talk about becoming digital and wanting to transform your company, but you’ve got a lot of infrastructure, you’ve got a lot of people who are interested in maintaining the status quo.” He says he looks forward to working with companies like uBiome, which don’t have the baggage of the past 50 years of drug development.

As with any drug development effort, there are many ways to fail. But Jimenez says that so long as uBiome “follows the science,” it will be on a “very, very good track.”

Investors in uBiome’s funding round include OS Fund as well as 8VC, Y Combinator, family offices, and additional new and existing investors.

By Matthew Herper

Source: Forbes

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