Leading Biotech Researcher, Entrepreneur and Investor Dr. Arie Belldegrun to Share Secrets of His Success at the Yale Innovation Summit

Dr. Arie Belldegrun knows a few things about building biotech companies out of academic research. The celebrated Founder and former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kite Pharma – a startup sold to Gilead last year for $11.9B – has a formidable track record of advancing the right technologies at the right time. Dr. Belldegrun will be a featured keynote speaker at the Yale Innovation Summit on May 9, where he will discuss his process for launching successful biotech startups and provide insights to Yale researchers who are interested in following that path.

Dr. Belldegrun is firmly embedded in the worlds of academia, industry and investment as a Professor of Urology and Director of the UCLA Institute of Urologic Oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA as well as a founding partner of the venture capital fund Vida Ventures. “Academia takes an innovation-first approach to research where teams can take the time to incubate an idea. This results in true potential breakthroughs for patients when that work is then partnered with industry and investors willing to take the risk and invest to take it to the next step,” says Dr. Belldegrun. 

He’s had a long history of developing promising research into blockbuster companies. His path to becoming a biotech entrepreneur began at UCLA with the founding of Agensys which specialized in therapeutic antibody research and development in cancer. Agensys was acquired by Astellas Pharma Inc. in 2007 for $537 million and UCLA retained a portion of the equity in the company making it, at the time, one of the biggest tech-transfer deals in the school’s history.

“My mantra is that science is what drives innovation and success in biotechnology,” he continued. “We must focus on bold new science that makes great strides rather than delivering incremental improvements. If you are not founded on great science, you should not proceed.”

His next play was in prostate cancer with a drug that targets a specific protein related to testosterone development with a startup called Cougar Biotechnology where he was the founding Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board. Cougar was acquired by Johnson & Johnson in 2009 for $1 billion. “We were looking at how cancer escapes and becomes resistant,” he says, “and we created a ‘master switch’ that turns hormones down in the body.” The product they developed, Zytiga, is now the most commonly used drug in prostate cancer with reported sales of $2.5 billion in 2017.  

Kite Pharma was the culmination of Dr. Belldegrun’s three decades of research in immunotherapy. “Only in the last three years had the science reached a point where industry could advance it to a meaningful therapy for a broader group of patients,” he says.

The foundation for Kite started more than a decade ago with pioneering research on engineering T-cells to fight cancer at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This technology was lauded by academics, but the NIH didn’t have the resources to adequately test CAR-T cells or the know-how to scale an operation of this complexity. Kite, a small startup, was the only company to see the potential where others saw only risk. While the NIH had invested less than a million dollars a year in the technology over two decades, Kite has now poured millions more into R&D to bring the product to market. The results of this work and partnership led to the breakthrough therapy Yescarta™, the first FDA-approved CAR-T therapy for the treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). This approval represented a paradigm shift in the treatment of blood cancer. In recently released long-term data, patients who were part of the clinical trial were followed for a minimum of one year. Eighty-two percent of patients responded to Yescarta™, including 58% of patients who had achieved complete remission. Dr. Belldegrun hints that he’ll soon be making another big announcement related to immunotherapy.

In the meantime, Dr. Belldegrun remains passionate about bringing other researchers’ technologies to market through Vida Ventures, which invests in opportunities in biotechnology and life sciences. “We’re looking for innovative great new science, experienced people, and people who know how to translate scientific knowledge into products,” Dr. Belldegrun says. Dr. Fred Cohen, Board Chairman of the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale, and a Yale alum, also is a founding partner in the fund with Dr. Belldegrun.

“We’re thrilled to have Arie’s expertise at the Yale Innovation Summit,” says Bill Wiesler, Director of New Ventures and of the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale at the Office of Cooperative Research. “There are few people who better understand how to bring promising academic research into the marketplace and build the teams and attract the investors that will make it a success.”

The Yale Innovation Summit is May 9, 8:15am-5pm at Evans Hall, 165 Whitney Ave. Hosted by the Yale Office of Cooperative Research, the event connects innovators and investors at Yale through two tracks – biotech and tech, leading keynotes, investor panels, two pitchoffs for cash prizes, a large electronic poster session, and a closing reception at the Yale Peabody Museum. DETAILS & REGISTRATION.

For additional information about the Yale Innovation Summit contact Ann Hollmann, Senior Administrative Assistant, Office of Cooperative Research, (203) 436-8096, ann.hollmann@yale.edu.