Dr. Mathai Mammen, the former head of research and development at Johnson & Johnson, has been named the new leader of FogPharma, a small Cambridge biotech that licensed a new scientific approach to treat cancer and other diseases from Harvard University.
FogPharma, a privately held startup with roughly 100 employees ― which is a long way from J&J’s 155,000 worldwide staff ― announced the appointment on Thursday. Mammen will serve as an adviser until June, when he becomes chairman, president, and chief executive.
He will succeed Gregory Verdine, the Harvard chemical biologist and serial biotech entrepreneur who founded the startup in 2016. Verdine, who pioneered a new class of drugs to treat diseases caused by the interaction of proteins within cells, will become vice chairman of the company’s board of directors.
Mammen, 55, who has a medical degree from Harvard and the MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, said he was a teaching assistant in Verdine’s undergraduate chemistry class at Harvard while studying for his doctorate there.
“I’m really proud to take over where he left off,” he said.
Mammen had interviewed last year to become chief executive of Cambridge-based Biogen after Michel Vounatsos left following the debacle of that firm’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm. Mammen said he decided to take his name out of the running for that job for the same reasons he left J&J: he wanted to create a new work culture at a small firm, rather than try to change the culture at a big one.
“It’s a lot better and more personally satisfying to build it up rather than to fix what’s there,” he said.
He said he wants to expand the use of data science at FogPharma to include not just the hunt for new drug targets, but to help the biotech manage its finances and hire employees.
He also hopes to broaden the use of precision medicines ― drugs tailored to the unique genetic make-up of patients ― to treat a multitude of diseases besides cancers and rare genetic disorders.
“I really want to establish a company that’s very modern and future-facing,” Mammen said.
FogPharma is working on medicines to treat diseases caused by proteins that bump up against one another within cells, much as monoclonal antibodies treat disorders caused by “protein-protein interactions” outside cells. Researchers believe that these collisions may drive many forms of cancer as well as other diseases. FogPharma hopes to soon begin testing a drug that would block such interactions.
FogPharma has raised more than $360 million from investors to advance its research, including a $178 million funding round announced in November.
Mammen spent almost six years at J&J until his departure last month, rising to executive vice president of research and development for pharmaceuticals. He led teams that won global approvals of eight medicines and helped secure emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration of J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was developed partly at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Before joining J&J, he was a senior vice president at Merck and previously led research and development at Theravance, a company he cofounded in 1997 out of graduate school based on his work at Harvard.
“Mathai is a world-renowned innovator in drug discovery, development, and company building who has created great teams, businesses and numerous important medicines over 25 years in small and large pharma,” said Verdine.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.