As we approach the new year, Slone Partners’ quarterly Leadership Series closes out 2018 with an exclusive interview with Anthony Johnson M.D., Chief Executive Officer of Goldfinch Bio. Singularly focused on discovering and developing precision medicine therapies for kidney disease, Goldfinch Bio, a Third Rock Ventures company, prepares for clinical trials with its new drug GFB-887 to help the over 800 million patients worldwide suffering from kidney disease or failure. Now, Dr. Johnson shares his thoughts on leadership, precision medicine, and the importance of strong networks of support.
Slone Partners: Your executive career has included impressive roles at very large multinationals like Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as being Chief Medical Officer of the Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit at AstraZeneca. What’s life like now being CEO of Goldfinch Bio since your appointment in 2017?
Dr. Johnson: There are lots of similarities but also significant differences between working within a large pharmaceutical company and leading a start-up biotech company. What’s similar are day to day activities like effectively managing talent (recruiting, retaining, performance-managing the best people); building and motivating a group of colleagues so they work as a high-performing team and achieving ambitious goals together; profiling our science; and leveraging the group’s experience and knowledge within a framework that fosters great decision-making that’s both science and business-related. This is the same regardless of company size. The primary difference now at Goldfinch Bio is that at a small start-up, I am very focused on fundraising and business development related to our platform.
Slone Partners: Kidney disease and kidney failure affect 1-in-9 people worldwide – a surprisingly high percentage – which Goldfinch Bio describes as a global health epidemic. How did Goldfinch arrive at specializing in kidney research and therapy, and what is the Goldfinch Product Engine?
Dr. Johnson: Goldfinch Bio is funded by Third Rock Ventures (TRV), the firm that also supported MyoKardia, a precision medicine company for heart disease. When it became clear that this approach could be successful, TRV recognized that chronic kidney disease is a global epidemic comprising heterogeneous disorders and that the kidney disease medical environment had poor treatment options and major unmet medical needs. The recent explosion in our understanding of kidney genomics and science, together with an evolution of the regulatory environment towards accepting surrogate endpoints for initial approval, really created an exciting opportunity for TRV to build a precision medicine-driven kidney company. So Goldfinch Bio was born, and we created the Goldfinch Bio product engine, which is comprised of both our Kidney Genome Atlas and human stem cell-derived podocytes and kidney organoids.
Slone Partners: Do humans really need two kidneys? Does failure and disease affect both simultaneously? What’s the specific point of vulnerability?
Dr. Johnson: Humans can survive on one normal kidney but there is a linear decline in kidney function over time from about the 4th decade. Typically, disease affects both kidneys simultaneously. Once the overall kidney function declines to stage 4 chronic kidney disease, coupled with a severe decrease in glomerular filtration rate to 15-30 mls/min, that patient is likely to require dialysis or kidney transplantation in the near future for survival. Goldfinch’s mission is to help those patients with targeted precision medicine therapies to ultimately prevent the need for dialysis or kidney transplantation.
Slone Partners: Goldfinch Bio was launched by Third Rock Ventures, and many Third Rock partners were installed at Goldfinch upon its launch in 2016, including Phil Reilly M.D., J.D. as CMO, Neil Exter as COO, and Abbie Celniker, Ph.D. as interim CEO. What is the ongoing working relationship like between the two entities today? How do you support each other for success? Take us through those touchpoints.
Dr. Johnson: TRV is the primary investor in Goldfinch Bio. Abbie Celniker (BOD chair) and Neil Exter (BOD member) are heavily engaged in the company and committed to its success. Goldfinch Bio interacts with various TRV partners for advice and support, which covers our science, investor relations, fundraising, business development and talent sourcing as the company needs it. TRV remains a tremendous supporter of Goldfinch Bio and the company regularly engages with TRV partners. Additionally, our team interacts with leaders of other TRV-funded companies, which is a great network of support to have access to.
Slone Partners: The healthcare industry is embracing and implementing personalized medicine approaches to individuals and VCs are briskly funding personalized medicine companies. Where is patient care in reality with this new “one size does not fit all” philosophy, specific to patients, physicians and the industry?
Dr. Johnson: In oncology, personalized medicine has progressed significantly, driven by novel therapeutics with accompanying companion diagnostics or biomarkers that help identify patients most likely to respond to a given therapy. This is appealing to patients, regulators, industry sponsors, prescribers and payers (smaller trials, greater treatment effects justifying higher prices), so personalized medicine continues likely to be embraced. The concept of precision medicine is new in kidney diseases, but is also likely to progress in parallel with the development of precision medicine therapies across the entire medical spectrum.
Slone Partners: Your company runs the Kidney Genome Atlas, a kidney disease patient registry. How big is the atlas and at what point may the collection of this genomic, transcriptomic, and proteomic data be unnecessary?
Dr. Johnson: At present the Kidney Genome Atlas (KGA™) contains over 5,500 patients and ethnically-matched controls. The insights we derive may support novel target identification, patient stratification, and new disease-related diagnostic and therapeutic concepts. Currently, it’s unclear how large a data set is optimal for KGA™, the data of which are anonymized, but we believe that for more common diseases such as diabetic kidney disease, the Goldfinch Bio KGA™ needs to be substantially larger than it is now.
Slone Partners: As a medical doctor with 18 years of clinical practice, how challenging is it to balance your scientific tendencies with the daily rigors of managing the business in terms of strategy, team building, planning, marketing, finance, etc?
Dr. Johnson: My training and experience have prepared me for this role. There are many different types of challenges and opportunities, but at Goldfinch Bio, this role for me is truly a dream come true!
Slone Partners: What makes you happy?
Dr. Johnson: Seeing Goldfinch Bio meet its promise and make a truly meaningful impact on the treatment of kidney diseases over the next several years.